GABlog

February 13, 2015

The Rhythm of Civilization

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:58 pm

Civilization represents a break from the hostage-taking mode of agreement constitutive of barbarism. Not necessarily a complete break, and never a permanent break, but “enough” of a break. Enough for what? For other forms of agreement to germinate. What other forms of agreement? Those you are ready to let a third party adjudicate. Hostage-taking is radically one-on-one—something dear to you (a loved one, your peaceful existence, your peace of mind) is held by the other, who is ready to destroy it. The threat of hostage-taking must be as terrible as it is if that threat is to keep the peace (indeed, you must be ready to pre-emptively take your own people hostage in order to prevent “rogue” players from implicating you)—but the problem is that the point will come when one side feels strong enough to blackmail the other with impunity (and if they are wrong it is even worse than if they are right).

To acknowledge the authority of a third party, both sides must agree that there is some shared “substance” and shared space—there is room for both sides, and a roughly equal allocation of goods that exists “objectively,” beyond the desire and will of either side, is imaginable. Such a possibility is already implicit on the originary scene, but actualizing that possibility in relations between closely related groups, rather than individuals within a single group, poses new historical problems. The actual third party will probably emerge from the party that rightly feels strong enough to blackmail others with impunity, and who can therefore impose his will on all concerned. Once this party has established pre-eminence by suppressing all rivals, he will want order, which means he will want resentment toward himself and amongst his newly acquired subjects neutralized (since recourse to simple repression risks disorder). Such neutralization requires procedures, and once such procedures start to work, we have the makings of civilization.

But what makes the procedures work? From what I have said so far, all we have is the fear of the subjects toward the hostage-taking power of the sovereign (and fear of each other, if the sovereign were to fall). But that wouldn’t be genuine neutralization (even if we have never yet had a civilization without that fear lurking somewhere in the background–ultimately, all we ever do is defer the order of hostage-taking)—everyone would still be looking for that next chance to re-arrange things more favorably. That the procedures are “fair”? That begs the question of how the subjects arrive at a sense of fairness. Only obedience to a sacred imperative, to a divine interdiction on hostage-taking, can account for that sense of fairness. Something like the monotheistic revelation, or a philosophical disclosure (more or less widely spread among the communities involved, or the elites of those communities), is needed. Possible resentment toward the sovereign is then recouped within a measure of the sovereign, and each subject carries around a “third person” (what Adam Smith called an “impartial spectator”) rather than a set of commands backed by terror. Such an interdiction on hostage-taking is wide ranging from the start, bearing on ritual practice, political order, and family life (monogamy, for example, will sooner or later be discovered to be essential), but it deepens and extends even further over time (centuries), as we discover all the ways in which we have been engaged in hostage-taking without realizing it. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” has virtually unlimited ramifications—indeed, when this humble blogger and generative anthropologist hypothesizes the end of our (sinful?) civilization, is he really saying anything else?

Some vanguard of the new sacred, then, sets out to propagate and enforce the interdiction against hostage-taking. What uprootings of traditional practices must this involve! And only those whose communities are already embroiled in some crisis of their own sacred order will be open to the new order. Far more than persuasion will be required—only civilizational fanatics will have the stomach for it. At a certain point, they will find themselves taking hostages themselves, or getting the sovereign to do it for them. It’s not quite a return to the “old ways” (although according to some measures it might be “worse”), but it will generate resentments that take the form of a “heresy” (or that accuse the propagators of heresy), re-activating the need for a third party. Eventually a period of relaxation sets in—the diastole to the systole of civilizational fanaticism. The interdiction is loosened, reinterpreted—“remissions,” to use Phillip Rieff’s term, are introduced.

Remissions make the subjects prey to doubt, skepticism, cynicism, exhaustion, dissolution, nihilism. If the interdiction need not be obeyed in its original, rigorous, sanctified form, then how? Why at all? The period of relaxation is one of limit testing and boundary inquiry. Assuming the elasticity of the interdiction is discovered, and the order it inaugurated not irrevocably broken, a new form of the “third person” emerges—now that the civilizational fanatic has been “exposed” as insisting upon an unnecessarily strict form of the interdiction, his desire is now included among those that lead to dangerous forms of violence. The civilizational fanatic becomes a subject of satire and is ultimately reduced to the epithet “hypocrite”—his pleasure is really in denying others theirs. The new urbanity might be historical wisdom, and it might provide a model for leaving off defense of civilized standards. Now the benefits of civilization can be reaped in earnest, and the forgetting of the civilizing process is underway. Much freer forms of speculation, inquiry, artistic experimentation—along with wealth production and power acquisition—become possible. In theory, we are now free enough, disciplined enough, and informed enough to tighten the reins where necessary, and loosen them where possible. In practice, sometimes as well. The problem is how to draw the line between loosenings and re-barbarizations, between inquiries into that boundary and attempts to subvert it, and between new forms of civilizational fanaticism and re-barbarization. The 20th century saw all kinds of grotesque articulations of hyper-civilization and the depth of barbarity. The solution to the problem lies in whether one takes those positioned as third persons hostage, or presents issues to those potential third persons to adjudicate. Perhaps that requires a discussion of the “grammar of civilization,” which I hope to get to next.

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