February 12, 2015

A Note on Civilization and Periodization

Filed under: GA — adam @ 10:08 am

Retrieving the category of “civilization” as a central term in the human sciences provides us with a way of revisiting familiar historical periodizations and, ultimately, answering the most important question: what is happening right now? If the period known as the Renaissance involved the completion of the civilizing process that had been ongoing since Europe began to recover from the fall of the Roman Empire and the initial Islamic invasions, it also involved an awareness of what had been accomplished, a vivid remembrance of the recently suppressed barbarism, and the beginnings of the figuration of the civilization/barbarism distinction in terms of varied speculations on “Nature.” The subsequent period, known to us as “modernity,” could then be understood as a dual process in which the fruits of civilization were reaped while the civilizing process was gradually forgotten. The two sides of this development complement each other: constitutive of a fully developed civilization is the distancing of its denizens from the systematic “addiction” to violence civilization had to transcend, and the naturalizing of civilized habits. The “originary” reflections of the Enlightenment, which project the modern bourgeois citizen back to a pre-social state, provide a perfect example of this forgetting (as does the very term “modernity,” suggesting, as it does, the possibility of a new beginning ex nihilo). The final forgetting of the civilizing process is the emergence of the normalizing process in the 19th century, in which all the obstacles to civilization are internalized, made into therapeutic and educational issues rather than moral questions or problems of manners.

We can, then, shed the following light on “postmodernity”: in response to the stirrings of barbarism in class warfare in the Western world and renewed experience with it in imperialism across the globe, Westerners resistant to normalization (a very imperfect process, one must grant) cultivated the following resentments towards their civilization: first, the insistence that Western civilization was really nothing more than a disguised barbarism, a criticism that targeted (especially in the wake of World War I) the failure of the West to suppress “atavistic” forms of violence once and for all—a critique that then inevitably directs attention to a wide variety of other barbarisms hidden behind a civilized “veneer’”; and, two, an outright defense of the suppressed barbarisms and savageries as modes of freedom more worthy of preservation than the unsatisfying and “uptight” freedoms of civilization—for a while, this defense of barbarism and savagery was a kind of play (in certain kinds of Romantic and avant-garde “decadence,” in the championing of sexual liberation, the hippies of the 1960s, etc.), although even much of that took a devastating toll, but now we have the real thing with the renewed Islamic war against the West, which our rulers and elites are completely incapable of addressing. These two anti-civilizational resentments are logically contradictory but politically complementary. This analysis would explain why no one has come up with a better term than the feeble “postmodern”—these contrary impulses, which civilization has been absorbing with decreasing resistance, and which make civilization unsustainable, also make a coherent account of this historical “period” impossible. If civilization is restored and those resentments marginalized, we will have our new period; if civilization is destroyed, who will care?

So, what is happening now is the sharpening of the anti-civilizational pincer movements, which have lost their play character and the inhibitions that accompanied it; the defense of modernity, under the assumption that attacks on it are mere parasites, rather than an auto-immune breakdown; and the search, more or less conscious, for a new rhythm of civilization, in which a renewed civilizing process can simultaneously keep the perennial threats of barbarism and savagery in view. Civilization replaced hostage taking, which presupposes, like the prisoner’s dilemma, that we are locked in together, as a mode of agreement, with the protection of spaces (property) that allowed for a diversity of exchanges, or agreements. Ensuring that no individual must enter the gift circle with one, and only one, specific individual, served as an enormous lever, deferring manifold forms of violence. But this new space of property locks us in together in a new way, creating new interdependencies that make hostage taking possible again. Victimary politics is as effective as it is because a few individuals can make enough of the assumptions of civilization problematic to extract concessions in the hope of return to normalcy. We have just barely begun to get a glimpse at what forms of hostage taking politicized hackers might invent. This is the central problem of any re-civilizing process: to neutralize these proliferating new forms of hostage taking.

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