Digitality and Civilization

I would like to use Eric Gans’s most recent, and for me extremely illuminating, Chronicle of Love and Resentment, to continue my series on civilization. (And, following Gans, I hope this will contribute to conversations we will have in High Point in June.) Gans makes three central (for my purposes, at least) claims: first, that the emergence of the “digital humanities” enables us to reflect upon the originary digitality of humanity: the sacred/profane distinction being the original 1/0 binary upon which all culture is built. Second, that the digital humanities draw out what is essential to the project of abstract or conceptual art, which is that (iconic, analog) content is ultimately secondary to simply positing the work or text as an object worthy of attention—indeed, taking this a step further, one might say that analog content (a picture looking like a landscape, a novel recording socially recognizable persons and events, etc.) is really nothing more than a Hitchcockian “MacGuffin,” meant to convince the reader, viewer or listener that something of moral or intellectual value justifies the attention one pays to the text. It is, then, really the text or work “about nothing” that we watch (to continue the Seinfeld reference) “because it’s on TV” that exemplifies the paradoxicality of the originary sign’s positing of the reality it purports to represent. Third, that the digital humanities derives its appeal from the exhaustion of academics from decades of being hammered with increasingly simplistic victimary discourse. The importance of this desire, in the process of finding satisfaction, to not confront but simply avoid or neutralize victimary thinking, could hardly be overstated, since it implies the possibility of post-victimary models of cultural politics well beyond its current academic applications.

Civilization, like any cultural form, is founded on a binary: civilized vs. uncivilized (with the distinction between barbarism and savagery pertaining to the latter term probably not that central to our understanding of the constitution of civilization, which first of all distinguishes itself from barbarism—the honor/gift/shame culture). The installation of civilization requires replacing one set of binaries, organized around the honor/shame one, with another, organized around the distinctions between civility and honor, and guilt and shame. This process is effected by a recoding of terms denoting obligations and virtues, transforming very literal and material understandings of concepts like “debt,” “violation” and “penalty” (involving the extraction of pain and blood, and/or the transference of resources) into more nuanced and polysemous understanding of these terms that distance them from their material consequences. Honor, for example, shifts from the ability to avenge, and therefore the ability to deter, any offense to one’s power or possessions, to a reputation for playing by the rules. The Renaissance was essentially such a process, carried out in the fields of representation (from two-dimensional to three-dimensional), religion (from ritual to individual conscience), politics (the absolute monarchy dispelling the archaic honor culture, which had led to uncontrolled violence among contending nobles) and the shift from orality to literacy.

Renaissance thinkers were both sharply aware of the cost and difficulty of constructing civilization out of barbarism (and hence the need to remain vigilant against the recrudescence of barbarism) and distant enough from the culture that had been overcome to study it and see it as a kind of originary model for a naturalness and spontaneity against which civilization could appear artificial, brutally calculating and corrupted. Perhaps this tension accounts for the greatness of so much Renaissance art, and the sense since the Renaissance that such greatness could not be surpassed or duplicated. The forgetting of the price of civilization sets in during the Enlightenment, when it became possible to imagine an originary humanity constructed on the model of the rational man of property (the figure of the Enlightenment itself). (This forgetting, incidentally, could be seen as the source of that “dissociation of sensibility” bemoaned by T.S. Eliot, and which Eliot identified with a shift in the language during the 17th century—in English, anyway—a suggestion that the digital humanities could perhaps explore more productively than Eliot’s more intuitive, albeit highly cultivated, approach allowed for.) This model then legitimated, on the left, destructive assaults on the social institutions that obscured, through civilizing accretions, that rational man. Here, in the fusion of Enlightenment and Romanticism, we see the origin of the victimary narrative in the distinction between a state of nature, exemplified by marginalized, even disappearing, groups, such as peasant farmers and the “savages” of the New World, and an oppressive civilization.

But for supporters of civilization, rather than the romantic reversal of the civilization/nature binary, civilizational binaries went in a more therapeutic direction. Let’s take a step back and acknowledge the enormous energy involved in replacing one cultural form (one founding binary) with another. This process requires ruthless fanatics (who may be conveniently demonized or forgotten once they have completed their work)—it requires a hunt for every last place where the binary to be extirpated still displays some life, and it cannot be too selective about the means of uprooting employed. Civilization is indeed founded on what a civilized society must recognize as terrible crimes. At a certain point, the cultural conflict emerges between those who continue that fanaticism past its necessity (like English teachers today who drill their students with grammar) and those who recognize the possibility of a relaxation of the new norms. (Of course, this conflict could be framed in the opposite way, as one between those who have forgotten what those norms are for, and how fragile the boundaries of civilization ultimately remain, and those who remember. Maybe civilization requires that its citizens never entirely surrender their civilizational fanaticism.)

Once the work of uprooting one binary and implanting another has been completed, the problem emerges of what combination of residual and emergent binaries needs to be taken up next. The real problem of some kinds of cultural conservatism is that they remain stuck in an older “fanaticism” when it’s necessary to move on, perhaps with equal vigor, to a new one. The work of civilizing is never done, human beings can never be thoroughly civilized once and for all, because desires and resentments remain rooted in savagery and barbarism (the fantasy of a thoroughly civilized being is currently invested in the fear of and desire for Artificial Intelligence). So, while Enlightenment intellectuals and Romantics inverted civilizational binaries, the “disciplinary” functionaries of modern civilization (of whom Foucault was perhaps right to take Jeremy Bentham as the model) got to work extending the fundamental civilized/uncivilized binary into new territories, now under the distinction between the normal and the abnormal. These new fanatics built penal and legal systems, schools and pedagogies, pathologies and therapies, organized around perpetually ginned up fears that we have come to call (thanks to the left, I must admit) “moral panics.”

A yet untold story of post-Auschwitz victimary movements is the way such movements have nestled themselves within a broader critique of the disciplinary culture—which has really been an argument within therapeutic culture between its normalizing wing, which (Freud being the main example here) realized that one must treat the injuries of normalization, and a new wing which saw the possibility of reclaiming a pre-violated self from those injuries as an indictment of normalization. It was easy enough to take the model of the normal man, woman, child, life-cycle, broken down into normal sexual relations, normal human interactions in public and private, normal emotional fluctuations, and so on, and identify that normal subject as white, male, Western, heterosexual, and middle class. The now seemingly exhausted theoretical movements of “critical theory” (originating with the Frankfurt School) and the “cultural studies” critical theory, via post-structuralism flowed into, found a very rich vein of normalizing binaries to be inverted here. Victimary thinking merely needed to step into the shoes cobbled together by critical theory. The current propaganda campaign against micro-aggressions continues to draw upon these riches, which makes it easy to attack the most minute elements of civilized manners and, further, to turn the charge of pathology back on the presumably normative model (the homophobe is the pathological one, not the homosexual, etc.).

What the digital humanities help to make clear, though, is that anyone can play this game. There is a real civilizational justification for inverting the binaries upon which civilization is founded—a justification for the Enlightenment, Romanticism and even, if diminishingly, victimary culture. How else could one challenge the overreach of civilizational fanaticism better than with a counter-fanaticism that, to quote Seinfeld once again, “does the opposite”? (Mid-twentieth century diagnoses of, say, “juvenile delinquency,” Elvis’s hips, etc., do seem comically fanatical now. Of course, we might still be wrong about that.) Since, contrary to metaphors we like to use regarding civilizational or cultural “dialogue,” there is no “table” at which “we” all sit down and work out, consensually, the terms of the coming stage of civilization. It’s all push and shove. The pushing of victimary culture has become a civilizational fanaticism in its own right, an incredibly ambitious normalizing project that even wants to determine how men sit on the subway (“manspreading”) or whether they stand up to urinate. The resentful barbarizing of some strains of libertarianism (“South Park libertarianism”) is a shove back, and there is no doubt more to come, once the new counter-culturalists realize that rather try and confront, attack, dismantle, etc., victimary culture directly, they would be more effective by simply iterating the victimary culture’s civilizational fanaticism in so many forms that it becomes inseparable from its parodies and make equally parodic reversals (female oppressing male, black oppressing white, gay oppressing straight, perhaps within utopian and dystopian settings, at least at first) intelligible and acceptable. Even more, the shift from iconic representations to statistical distributions facilitates the dispersion of the iconic victimary representations (the rape, the lynching, the Crusade) into a vast field of probabilities filled with exceptions and various possible “framings.” (Not to mention how developments in genetic science will enormously complicate our understandings of the relations between group genetic endowments and cultural accomplishments and failures.) In the process, esthetic representations can become less didactic and more abstract and conceptual (i.e., more civilized), simply displaying to us over and over again that it is we who are constructing the binaries we then defend or rebel against. Certainly this “shoving” requires some courage, but rarely in heroic quantities, especially given the room for anonymity in digital culture. That might lead us back to the real work of constructing new boundaries of “normality,” on more subtle, dispersed and reciprocally transparent terms. And that work might involve a remembering of the price of civilization, as we become more aware (there is an oscillation, characteristic of the civilized individual, between naivete and a cynicism involved here) that “all” we are really doing is marking the distinction between civilization and that form of violence (internal or external, physical or intellectual) currently threatening it.

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