Barbarian Within

The law of mimesis dictates that what another does you do, and what another does to you you do to them. For originary thinkers, the iconic form of this law is manifested on the originary scene—one reaches, then another reaches, and another, until one confronts another, then another… The initial interruption of this process, the originary sign, represents a deferral of the kind of violence that participants imagine would culminate in the unimaginable. We can assume that lesser, manageable forms of violence were immediately distinguished from more engulfing, cataclysmic kinds, similar to what is likely to take place in a bar fight: the two combatants will often be surrounded by the rest of the patrons, converted into audience and potential referee. If this doesn’t happen, if other patrons start taking sides, a uncontrollable melee might take place, with no outside intervention possible.

The process of civilization involves generalizing this distinction: containing local forms of violence in the interest of preventing a larger outbreak. Rules must come to govern those local forms of violence. We have become civilized when those rules become extensive and internalized enough so that we can all assume that our free actions (speaking our mind, having fun at some else’s expense, criticizing another, etc.) are buffered from any violent consequence. This also means that those free actions themselves follow the rules—there is a line between criticism and insult, between toleration of an offense and disgraceful acquiescence in one. Still, the basic mimetic law remains intact: if someone shows you a kindness, you respond in kind, you answer insult with insult. What changes is that we accept that those responses that “slide” toward certain dangerous forms of violence are to be mediated: we can answer insults with insults but we “answer” a mugging with a call to the police. We can assume that the most dangerous forms of violence will be those that threaten to activate the forms of violence characteristic of the honor society directly supplanted by civilized order: violence upon a member of one group answered by violence against members of the other group.

Needless to say, elements of this barbarism continue under civilized order, most obviously in organized crime and gang violence. But it continues in more fundamental ways. The legal system is so important to a civilized order because if it turns out that there’s no point to calling the police in response to a mugging, eventually recourse to other sources of satisfaction will be sought. In other words, we still, barbarically, demand our pound of flesh from the offender: we suspend our barbarian inclinations in deference to the controlled, more reliable barbarism of the state. To be thoroughly civilized would be to forego satisfaction for the offense committed against us individually in favor of the invention and dissemination of practices that would reduce the level of offense more generally. This, of course, is the classical mid-20th century liberal position: the liberal as he who is too broad-minded to take his own side in a fight. The problem with that form of liberalism is that it encourages its own subversion by implicitly licensing offenders who now know there will be no answer to their transgressions. Which really means we can never be thoroughly civilized: we can only suspend our barbarism, which also means we must preserve it.

Nor is there any need to stop at barbarism—prior to barbarism there is what used to be called “savagery.” These terms were used consistently in the 19th century (I have some familiarity with them through my reading of Marx and Engels, who had no problem distinguishing between the stages of “lower” and “higher” barbarism). I think we can fit them rather easily into originary thinking: barbarism is an order organized around competing “Big Men,” while “savagery” refers to the more egalitarian, collective society prior to the emergence of Big Men, where we must assume violence was much less mediated (even by fear of an assault on one’s tribe) and therefore more common, more random and less consequential. As a barbarian, you would brutally assault your boss for not giving you the promotion you deserve; as a savage, you slap a clerk in the store for telling you that an item was more expensive than you assumed. For the barbarian, violence is preserved and concentrated; for the savage, freely dispensed, easily forgotten. We are all, I think, familiar with these kinds of resentment: a desire to lash out at petty irritations, on the one hand, and slow, burning anger at more sustained refusals to recognize what we take to be our value. All this is rooted in mimetic law. Indeed, civilization multiplies the possibilities of these resentments.

Civilization also makes these resentments, our inner barbarian and savage, very unpleasant to behold. If a savage wants his fellow tribesman’s wife, he is deterred by the resistance he imagines she might put up and the revenge her husband might exact (along with whatever divine punishment he might imagine follows); but he has no reason to deny that that is what he wants, or to stop looking out for an opportunity. I imagine most of us would find such overt recognition of desires, even to ourselves, a hindrance to everyday intercourse. Hence “repression” and “sublimation.” Hence the periodic revolts against, in particular, civilized sexual norms (including prohibitions on profanity and obscenity), that we have witnessed since the early 19th century, revolts that with each iteration modify those civilized norms, ratcheting them further towards violation, until we get to the point where there’s not much left to violate. The only remaining norm is “consent,” but we now get to see how problematic that norm is, as new rules regarding sexual relations on college campuses turn “consent” into something very complicated indeed: if power differentials make consent impossible, then consent might very well be impossible.

One important part of the civilizing process over the past 50 years has concerned the treatment of children. Here, I consistently encounter testimony that matches my own experience: middle class children are far less free now than they were in the 60s and 70s (the 80s is when the change started to set in). Moral panics regarding sexual predators have often been the pretext for the tightening of restrictions on children, but I think what lies behind it is a squeamishness regarding the patent barbarism of children left to their own devices. This is what lies behind the campaigns against bullying: bullying is the “Big Man” form of rule among children. Children inflict suffering on each other fairly casually; they incite one another to risky behavior. This used to be tacitly accepted, on the grounds that children needed to learn to take care of themselves under free conditions—to learn how to defend yourself, to deal with hurt feelings, to resist the pull of the crowd, to learn from the occasional broken leg or nose. Serious injury, much less death, was obviously very rare—a risk that could be accepted. At a certain point, I think, adults just couldn’t look at this any more, a moral turning point analogous to the disgust that must have ultimately obsolesced gladiatorial contests and will perhaps do the same for football before too long.

Maybe today’s culture wars are between opposing views of the civilized/barbarian/savage spectrum. On one side are those consumed with uprooting and extirpating all that reeks of barbarism and savagery within the already civilized and therefore safe institutions (and to a sensitized nose, a great deal reeks); on the other side are those content to try and sustain a workable balance of our barbarian and savage inclinations with our civilized order. Those determined to civilize all they see are trapped in the paradox I identified before: to thoroughly civilize oneself is to encourage outright barbarism and savagery in others. Even more, and even more paradoxically, it licenses a kind of barbarism in oneself, the barbarism of hatred towards those who interfere with your slightest inclination. But those who see that we can only balance out all the consequences of mimetic law are unable to defend themselves effectively against charges of archaic barbarisms and savagery (they don’t get offended at ethnic jokes so readily, they will remark un-self-consciously on manifestations of gender difference, they will jokingly advocate harsh, even gruesome punishments of criminals, and retaliation against foreign enemies, etc.)—they are treasure troves of gaffes just ready to go viral.

It seems to me that there is a fairly interesting anti-civilizational revolt that has almost disappeared in the process. I recently saw a pretty good movie called The Chatterly Affair, a movie centered on the obscenity case in 1960 against the publication of Lady Chatterly’s Lover. It seemed pretty true to the trial, from other accounts I had heard, and one thing that was interesting about it was that all the arguments were on the side of allowing publication (and, by implication, overturning laws that would forbid it)—aesthetic arguments, cultural arguments, moral arguments, sociological arguments. On the other side there was really nothing but, as a famous Supreme Court decision had it, “I know it when I see it.” Once that layer of tacit agreement was broached, it proved impossible to reconstruct it verbally and intellectually, and we all know what rushed through. But even more interesting is that that whole cultural vein, from Lawrence and Henry Miller, through comedians of the 60s like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, and even including important tendencies in feminism, seems to have completely dried up. The only contemporary example I can think of is Trey Parker and Mark Stone, the makers of South Park. (There are some very interesting–to me, at least–literary developments along these lines though, even if they are still  marginal.) But that massive cultural revolt has been replaced, precisely among those demographically identical to its original constituency, by “trigger warnings.”

It would be good to see a revival, beyond left and right (as it would have to be), of this cultural tendency, because, beyond the anti-civilizational resentment lay something more valuable: a sacrificial willingness on the part of the artist or thinker to bear and make visible the forbidden and the abject, to enact a kind of discovery procedure of our inner savagery and barbarism. Even more, it has represented a play element in culture, beyond the rather narrow games that we usually play—maybe there is a connection between the marginalization of this kind of cultural practice and the clamping down on childhood. Interestingly, it would take cultural practitioners willing to be demonized, censored and punished by the left, and being willing to take that on would require a drastic remaking of the inherited cultural identity such practitioners would start off with. It would be lonely, because they couldn’t really be conservatives, either (even if some conservatives might cheer them on), and the kind of fearlessness needed to liberate oneself from established cultural roles is very rare. But they would be performing a great service—and might even become marketable before too long.

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12 thoughts on “Barbarian Within

  1. John

    “treasure troves of gaffes just ready to go viral”

    – there was someone commenting on a blog recently who proposed a new business where he would offer to attend parties, for a healthy fee, as the token dinosaur spouting all kinds of “incorrect” yet intellectually challenging statements. His premise was that there are hardly any (otherwise) socially and verbally polished people doing this and so there is a great need among the civilised for a flesh and blood hate focus for their recrudescent barbarism, proof of the existence of an evil hegemony. But I think he assumed he just had to be a smart non-racist conservative showing the other side their hate. Sound viable? Would many a leftist host know enough to recognise the need? can you begin to suggest what going beyond right and left might entail?

  2. adam Post author

    That might work! A leftist host might not know enough, but a host of leftists (i.e., someone hosting leftists, not a whole host of them) might. I’m sure that there’s a well known work of literature that is based on a similar premise, but I can’t remember right now–maybe it will occur to me.

    I hesitate before sending people to books they may not want to read, but might feel vaguely obliged to to engage the argument, but there is (I have just seen there is a wikepedia page for it) a new mode of fiction called “bizarro fiction,” which is just what it sounds like: bizarre, violating any norm of propriety one might imagine, and “bizarro” in the Superman sense of being the opposite of the “normal” world. Some of the writers are very good, it can be fun to read, and some of the books are very short if you want to get a taste. They are “critical,” but, interestingly, more in the traditional sense of criticizing things like selfishness, moral blindness, etc. I don’t get a sense of any real political agenda, at least from what I’ve seen so far. Just young writers (none of them seem to be out of their 30s) having fun and breaking rules and trying to do something a bit smarter than mainstream fiction. And there are some other examples in the literary world.

  3. Alan

    Reflections: Consider here a contrast between the so-called barbarian and savage (which I will try and refer to as traditional as I think that the current PC moniker). One of our historic barbarian groups were the Mongols who had established a robust state society which in 200 BCE defeated an invading Chinese army. Like most groups under the barbarian label, these were people who built cities and maintained complex economies with a broad range of artisan crafts including bronze or iron works. These are civilized communities demonstrating intense cooperation among thousands to millions of citizens. Typically also modest to strong cooperation with neighbors and allies – through the periods they were not at war.

    Traditional societies by stark contrast, are organized into bands or tribes with nominally stable membership of 50 to 300 individuals per domestic community. I would further characterize the members as companions, not citizens. Many conflicts in these groups are ‘resolved’ by one party leaving the group for another. Membership is very fluid in traditional societies whereas rather rigid in state societies. It took an act of the Senate to add citizens to the Roman Republic from neighbors conquered – one of the most liberal societies of the period. There is very little specialization in traditional communities (shaman excepted) – each family largely self-sufficient and possessing all of the tribes hunting and gathering technologies.

    I don’t think we can explain the dramatic transition from traditional to civil society simply by reference to deferral of violence. We also had to adopt significantly enhanced patterns of cooperation that go well beyond not attacking one another. Traditional societies ‘deferred’ much of their violence by separation of the antagonists. Sharing the meat following the exchange of signs allowed for amicable separation of hot-headed young men, but this was only a step toward civilization. And this ‘civilization’ (barbarians in the posted essay) but a step towards the domestic tranquility Adam calls us to re-christen ‘civilized’ to refer to (I think we need a new word here for this enhanced degree of peaceful co-existence!).

  4. adam Post author

    There is certainly room for argument regarding which societies are barbaric and which civilized, and in which ways, to what degrees, etc. Here is one place where we do want to avoid Eurocentrism, that is, failing to recognize any civilization that doesn’t look like our own. I don’t know about the fluidity of group membership for “traditional” societies, so I don’t have anything to say about that, but our own state societies seem to have gotten pretty fluid, so there’s clearly some variation there. And it may very well be that we need a new concept for our new, perhaps “post-civilizational” order.

    On the most important issue, though, the deferral of violence is certainly a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of civilization: deferral of violence between tribes, families, clans, etc., though, not just individuals. And while not sufficient, I suspect such deferral would go a long way toward releasing the energies for new modes of cooperation.

  5. Alan

    Continuing reflections: I suggested in my last post that the really dramatic improvement to behavior was already in place with the ‘barbarian’. And I concur with the analysis of Adam on the nature of the challenges going forward. To paraphrase Machiavelli, our rivals will leverage all of our virtues against us (Walk a mile over us for every inch we concede). But all is not in vain. Overall, we are better behaved than ever in (or before) history. We have gotten better because that makes us stronger as a society, more stable and more productive. True, it also makes us easier to take advantage of to some degree, but that just means we need to work smarter to compensate. To that end, I think policy changes lampooned a bit in the post are positive moves: both the anti-bullying and trigger warning policies make us more considerate citizens while also making us more aware citizens. It is less productive to trade insults (which are forms of bullying) than to challenge those who insult (or bully in any form) to behave themselves. And if insults are effectively challenged, there will be far less escalation to violence, far fewer calls to the police, far fewer occasions for ‘accidental’ police homicides, far less social tension all around. Good behavior is a habit that can be generated by considerate, aware citizens. It is not civil behavior that encourages barbaric responses, but rewarding barbarism. The Liberal who supported the Panthers over King. A little bit of knowledge supporting a destructive reaction to a problem over a productive solution.

    At the end of his post, following a bit of misplaced mockery over trigger warnings, Adam turns away from progress towards the abys. There are sound reasons for the massive cultural revolt beeing ‘replaced, precisely among those demographically identical to its original constituency, by “trigger warnings.” The cultural revolt of the ‘60s and ‘70s had a lot of destructive elements. Embracing our inner savage is to tolerate worse behavior, not encourage better. Savages are largely liberated from established cultural roles, but why go there?

    There is one irredeemable fact of freedom that conservatives and liberals alike have great trouble admitting to: Most of the ‘choices’ available to you are really stupid, really destructive behaviors. Every rule, every law, every socially constraining institution was put in place to protect us from freedom – either ours (protection from ourselves) or our rivals (protecting what is ours). Freedom needs to be explored cautiously. Liberating oneself from established cultural roles is very rare for very good reasons. We have our ‘roles’ because they led our ancestors to success.

  6. adam Post author

    You take those demanding trigger warnings and condemning bullies at their own word, or far more literally, than I do. In my view, they are both the ones taking advantage and preventing us from working smarter. Am I more or less civilized for not taking my fellow citizens at their word, and assuming that their anti-bullying and demands for greater consideration are really barely concealed forms of inconsiderate bullying? I suppose it depends on whether I’m right. How can we tell? Wouldn’t a mark of a civilized society be a capacity to reason regarding what constitutes reasonable treatment? (Can you be so sure that your own assertion that socially constraining institutions are necessary to protect us from our freedoms will not itself be experienced as bullying by, say, an easily triggered undergraduate female whose self-esteem depends upon affirming her sexuality without judgment? Are you prepared to be challenged and corrected accordingly, i.e., to never say such things again?)

    I see a way of connecting your claim that the main advances in human behavior were made under barbarism, and your critical remarks on freedom. Yes, as barbarism progresses, roles, rules, and laws become more reliable, complex and compelling. But, in the end, they are imposed externally, not adopted freely. And that means they make it impossible to “work smarter,” i.e., to respond to the unanticipated, to those who use those rules and roles against us, to new conditions that undermine those roles and rules. How do we learn to work smarter? By testing, stretching, and revising those rules and roles. And how do we do that? By providing relatively free spaces (like during childhood, but also in aesthetics–but every activity has an aesthetic dimension) where people can break, mock, reverse and violate those rules and roles. One bullies and is bullied, one shocks others, shatters taboos, and has one’s own shattered by others. So, you learn to defend yourself, avoid risky situations, reflect upon the roles and rules others have imposed on you; you are exposed to the feelings of others, to your own feelings from the standpoint of others, and learn regret, compassion, and repentance. Only in this way does one acquire the first freedom, the freedom from enslavement to one’s own desires and resentments. Being told what to do will never get you there–it will only keep you in line through fear and hope dispensed by others, ultimately someone “bigger”–this maintains your enslavement to your own desires and resentments, as they are the tools keeping you in line. And on that first freedom is built all the others. So, that seems to me the difference between civilization and even the most advanced barbarism.

  7. Alan

    You are absolutely correct in that no cookie-cutter can provide a solution. No time right now though to refine my response, but in short freedom must be handled with care. Too little eliminates opportunities, agreed! (And I do not need to deal with those triggers, but do sympathize.)

    Road to hell, good intentions and all that.

  8. adam Post author

    One of the most precious and fragile yields (“gifts,” if you like) of civilization is the possibility of open, public discussion, where everyone shares an interest in getting at the truth, in learning from and persuading others, in trying to get beyond our own roles and see what really is, regardless of what we think of it–much like we are doing here. Part of civility is insisting on speaking like this, even in the face of those who want to use public discourse as a vehicle for their own resentments. (Doing so tend to enrage them, which can be a little fun.) The challenge to the uncivil, in other words, is not just an enforcement of correct behavior, but includes preserving the language in which we can speak freely (that is, free of the compulsion to use words as war by other means, to demonize and stigmatize), i.e., according to our ancestors’ originary intent. Sometimes that means speaking harshly, but always in such a way as to leave open the possibility that words might be available to frame whatever conflict is at hand. Even violence should be used in such a way as to make it possible for that violence to be redeemed by the words used to account for it.

  9. Alan

    I was not taking the trigger/bully wonks at their word, but you at yours from ‘Civilization …’: ‘Let a thousand renunciations bloom!’ Both of these movements are propositions of civilizing renunciations. Both show promise and both could use refining. Abrogating freedom can be very frustrating, but also necessary. Freedom is the easiest thing in the world to have – surviving freedom less so. Humans (by my calendar) were free for 2 ½ million years and lived (euphemistically at least) in caves. Eric Gans is not even willing to call them human until they traded some of that freedom for a mutual deferral of violence on a very limited scale at the Event. We could not form civilization nor build cities without first subjugating ourselves to king and priest. France made a grab for freedom in 1789. After ten years of chaos and bloodshed, they welcomed the tyranny of Napoleon! The first path to working smarter is to learn from past mistakes, and not insist on repeating them every generation.

    While one can learn gentleness from violent methods, I think it probably quicker and better learned from gentle methods. Napoleon, representing the external imposition of violence deferral, did not return to France alone. The Church returned with him, representing internally, self imposed restraint. In my review of the evidence (Consistent also with J. Diamond in ‘Guns Germs and Steel’) priests came before kings. While the lessons of the Event were cemented within the psyches of traditional societies by the shaman (amateur religious leaders), far greater voluntary renunciations (cemented by their professional counterparts priests) were necessary before kings could ascend. Big Men imposing their will represents the social order among chimps, but not stable human societies. Even such tyrants as Stalin and Mao relied very heavily on ideology to promote internalizing of restraint.

    At every stage of social advance, I see refined internalization of restraint and improved childhood socialization at its foundation. A great deal of internalization, not to mention education was required for a society to transition from tyrant to elected leadership. Extremely critical to making non-destructive ‘free’ choices is education – most things have been tried before. When we understand how and why those choices failed, we are less likely to repeat them. When we understand bullying we will be less tolerant of it – but I don’t think we need to practice violence to learn this.

  10. adam Post author

    Yes, the trigger warners and anti-bulliers have the look of those pioneering a new mode of renunciation, but I think the looks are deceiving in this case because they don’t adopt renunciations for themselves, but rather demand them of others–and the methods they use (haranguing, “occupying,” excusing the violence of the “oppressed”) looks, in fact, a lot like bullying and a regression to savagery. The great lesson of Judaism and then Christianity is that first of all you must master your own resentments and desires, and then you will be an example for others. The victimary mobs, by contrast, are incontinent.

    There are some things we’re thinking about differently. First of all freedom, which you seem to be defining quite literally (as I suppose Hobbes did as well) as free movement. Only in that sense can freedom apply to animals, or can it be something humans “tried” before realizing that it just led to trouble. Early humans were less free because they were enslaved to highly literalistic and “concrete” forms of the sacred, which haunted and crippled them. The progress towards one, invisible, unknowable God is an enormous increase in freedom, because a social order comprised of moral beings provides more freedom to everyone than one comprised of half-starving beings tormented by fears of ancestors, ghosts, petty, vengeful deities, etc. Freer in the only sense meaningful for humans: that your actions are self-determined, rather than driven by passions out of your control.

    Second, the Big Man, which has nothing to do with chimps or animal pecking orders, but the first step towards the accumulation of wealth, prestige, a more refined notion of the sacred social order and, therefore, freedom.

    What is a good way of socializing the children? That’s an open question, at the very least–it’s not obvious to me that constant oversight and control is better than the provision of free, and protected, spaces.

  11. adam Post author

    I believe I can point out a couple of other, hopefully clarifying, differences between us emerging here. First, you say that when we understand bullying better, we will be less tolerant of it–you assume here, that we progress towards more universal agreement on what bullying is, in the first place. For you, bullying is a “thing,” as real as a tree, and we know it when we see it. But it’s not. “Bullying” is a name we give to certain practices where we can identify an innocent victim and a tormentor; but what counts as “innocent” and what counts as “torment” are moral judgments, which have a historical component and now slide into political questions. For me, more important than–indeed a precondition of–understanding and reducing bullying, is the maintenance of moral vocabularies in which we can keep exploring what is involved in victimization, and claims thereto. This is perhaps why I think we need practice and experience to become morally literate, i.e., free–as far as I can tell, you think some orders from above ought to do it.

    Second, I think that your claim that most things have been tried before is either false or meaningless–maybe a bit of both. Leave aside the obvious objection that we are daily surrounded by things that haven’t been tried before: the internet, bio-engineering, international treaties on carbon reduction, etc. What is more important is that the past can only ever be an inadequate template for the future–something is always different this time. How do we know when the template is applicable, and when it no longer helps? There’s no template for that either (the past is full of disasters caused by those who hewed too closely to some template of past behavior). There is no substitute, at least once norms have lost their traditional, i.e., ritual, sanction, for a community of free people, bound by agreements, tacit and explicit, among those agreements a commitment to open deliberation on challenges confronting the community. And there’s no alternative to renouncing the desire to dictate to others, and renouncing the resentment towards others who don’t share your habits. One great principle of civilization is that most things are not your business, or anyone’s business.

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