Civilizational Hide and Seek

The more deferral of desire leads to prestige and wealth, the more civilized the community. The result is a infinitely extendable chain of actions leading to measurable results: in the degree zero of civilization, you eat what you gather or catch, you wear what you make, you sleep where you make a bed for yourself. This immediacy of result can be individual or collective—we eat what we catch, etc. Divisions of labor are the first steps towards civilization: one group hunts, another group cooks, then all eat. The chain continues to grow: one group raises the livestock, another slaughters it, another distributes it, others cook it, etc. And we know how it ends up: with a market society, in which no one knows what anybody else is doing, how the food got on your plate, how the clothes got into the store, how the transistors got into your iphone, and so on. This process allows for larger communities and more connections between communities, both developments dependent on the suppression of violence, first of all within communities: as long as each of us is focused on no one getting a bigger piece of an item on which all have equal claim, we will all insist on being present through the entire process. Civilization implies a faith that the end result of distribution will be roughly fair, but without anyone being able to say for sure (or even being able to say for sure what “fair” means).

The continually extended chain generates two contradictory and complementary desires. The first, directly civilizing, desire, is to conceal the chain. To take an example from Norbert Elias that I have used before, if eating the food in a separate location from where it has been prepared is a civilizational advance (just as is preparing it in a different location than where it has been slaughtered), then a marker of one’s awareness of this advance would be keeping the preparation out of sight. Food preparation, and, even more, the slaughterhouse, becomes “disgusting.” There is no doubt that the civilized individual of today finds sights and smells completely unbearable that our ancestors would not have even noticed (including, for example, the myriad body odors we make sure to conceal). We can see how whole systems of manners and discourses comprised of euphemisms arise out of the civilizational hiding: in one place (say, the dinner table) you don’t do or say anything that might be a reminder of what is done in another place (the field, the workplace, the bathroom, the bedroom, etc.). Of course, this would exclude much of human life from dinner table conversation, but it does leave accounts of encounters and conversations that don’t rely on the specifics of these other settings (say, a discussion one had with a co-worker about a restaurant or movie) and, at least as important, all kinds of indirect references to the forbidden topics. The acrobatics of such indirect references, making the references in a way that distinguishes those initiated into civilization from the novice, is what makes one a “polite” and “civilized” dinner companion.” You might think this is a parody of the decadent aristocracy of the 18th century, but I think if you pay close attention to how people (at least those who are not very close friends, or people intensely engaged on a common enterprise) speak at shared meals today, you will see that the same constraints are in place.

This desire for concealment of the conditions of civilization generates the contrary desire to expose them. This counter-desire emerges from a couple of sources. First, there is the imposition of the originary moral model on the civilizational scene. Civilization is predicated upon a particularly refined model of the moral reciprocity of the originary scene, but for that very reason is destined to violate it in many respects. Somewhere in that long chain of actions that has led to the dinner being on our table is an injustice. Some underpaid farm worker picked those berries, some sweatshop worker stitched that beautiful dress, etc. That worker is “here,” but not here—it seems morally relevant, maybe even imperative, to make their presence felt. Civilizational distancing generates the appearance and certainly quite a bit of the reality of “hypocrisy”—proclaiming one’s adherence to the highest standards of moral reciprocity while relying upon practices that transduce those standards. A related imperative is to take responsibility for the results of one’s actions, a desire that motivated anti-civilizational thinkers like Thoreau, who wanted to build his own house, make his own clothes, grow his own food, simply so that he could account and be accountable for it all. Here, again, anxiety about the terms of the morality of the scene is involved: precisely as a civilized person, with an awareness of the intricate consequences of one’s actions, one wants to be able testify to those consequences.

The second, and perhaps more important desire (and infusing the moral imperatives), derives from the simple fact that what has been hidden away becomes fascinating for that very reason. Such concealment is drawn into the moral arena insofar as it is reasonable, even if wrong, to assume that things are hidden because people with an interest in doing so have hidden them, but the feeling that one is “off-center,” alienated, purposeless, anomic, precedes morality insofar as it derives from an intuition that unsettled violence lies within both the social order and the individuals it has created. In synthesizing these moral imperatives and undirected intimations of disorder, civilization creates sensationalism and sentimentalism: sensationalism being a premonition that seeing what others, presumably for no good reason, want to keep hidden, will yield some inarticulate revelation; and sentimentalism the determination to impose the narrative of the civilized individual on people living in less civilized conditions. I once saw an interview with Gayatri Spivak where she chastised global do-gooders trying to do away with child labor in the underdeveloped world by asserting that the reaction on the part of most of the child laborers themselves is “why do they want to take away my job?” Maybe Spivak was herself flouting the civilizational assumptions of her leftist academic interviewer (this used to be, at least, one of her favorite pastimes), but she had a very good point. Until very recently, children have always worked, and the very notion of childhood as a protected space of play and learning is a product of the civilized order that, it may very well be, only a period during which the productivity of entire populations is significantly increased will establish. Sentimentalizing the efforts and sufferings of people trying to get there will not do them any good. At any rate, it seems that there is a clear order here: first one sensationalizes (generates outrage) and then one sentimentalizes (persuades us that the problem has been solved and we can avert our eyes again).

Sensationalism and sentimentalism are, of course the most prominent markers of “popular culture,” and popular culture is nothing if not a mode of concealment (of the tangle of resentments and deferrals pop culture represents as battles between good and evil), bringing us full circle. Civilization is an ongoing game of hide and seek, with the same people involved in overlapping modes of exposure and concealment. Today’s campus sexual culture, at least as administratively represented, is as perfect an example as one could hope for: with the installation of “affirmative consent” (“yes means yes”) as the new criterion for determining the “legitimacy” of a sexual encounter, each physical piece of the sexual puzzle, all that would have not long ago been unspeakable in “mixed company” (where the partners touch each other, what manner of touch, in what order, etc., logically, at least, requiring the precision and detail of a porn flick or medical examination) must be explicitly stated; on the other hand, all the tacit understandings of the erotic encounter, the hints, the suggestions, the hesitations, the play—all of that must be whited out as markers of a barbaric inequality between the sexes. I think the insatiable desire for “transparency” in government is similarly complemented by a code of silence regarding the basic dispositional components of social order (could you imagine a politician today running [much less governing] on the “populist” platform of straightforwardly and unapologetically supporting law abiding citizens, with a right to be in this country, who follow moral traditions, defer gratification, work and pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits—against those who don’t fit those criteria? As recently as Ronald Reagan, that was possible—but if you listen carefully to even the most conservative politicians today, you will see that they speak a very different language, one formed so as to say as little as possible about what people actually do with their lives). We could probably establish a precise law here: for every exposure there is an equal and opposite concealment. It is the task of high culture to take us inside the civilizing process (to expose those hidden chains of action) while remembering that exposure itself is just another link in that chain, exercising its own concealments, invariably in the interest of self-exemption from the difficulties and incommensurabilities of civilization through advocacy of the moralizing simplicities of one part of it.

Civilizational hide and seek is bound up with all questions of ethics and politics. The concept of “progress” implies that we will always find more areas of barbarism and savagery hidden within civilization, that these areas must be brought into the light, which is to say sensationalized and sentimentalized so that they can be reformed on familiar terms. And “progress” is intrinsically bound up with civilization—but this also means that there is something mechanical and compulsive about our insistence on progress: rather than accept that the barbaric must civilize themselves and that the civilized can do no more than offer incentives to do so (and protect themselves and their civilization in the meantime), the civilized seem unable to refrain from remaking any instance of barbarism in their sight in their own image; which also implies they cannot refrain from seeing anything that does not conform to their own image as barbaric. (Not to digress, but the supposed “relativism” of the Left is really an absolutism towards those elements of its own society it considers “barbaric”—the Left doesn’t really care about Islam or “Muslim extremism” one way or another—it cares about exposing the barbaric belligerence and backward racism of the nearer enemy.) This is all part of the dialectic of exposure and concealment: the civilized automatically, involuntarily, recoil from the slightest barbaric blot, while also being irresistibly attracted to uncovering/projecting them so as to bury them more irretrievably. I will refrain, for now, from explaining leftist, victimary, politics in these terms, but it can very easily and extensively be done (and the emergent right-wing “counter-counter-cultural” politics found on websites like Beitbart, PJMedia and Frontpage, have also seeped themselves in sensationalism, in a tit-for-tat manner). A responsible politics of civilization, then, must resist sensationalism and sentimentalism while inevitably entering the game of hide and seek. This involves transgressing boundaries (differentiations), like, for example, between “art” and “life,” or “domestic” and “foreign” issues, but doing so in order to restore or replace those boundaries. Transgression involves exposure, bringing something that usually remains unseen into a space predicated upon its exclusion: in doing so, one obeys the imperative issuing from the moral order but also the need to refresh our ostensives (the underlying attraction of sensationalism and sentimentalism), to see new things in new ways, to replace dead signs with ones that can represent emergent resentments; restoring boundaries refrains from using the violation of moral order that has been spotted behind some wall as a battering ram to demolish other, presumably equally “hypocritical” boundaries. The restored or renewed boundary, then, must provide a way of arranging the newly revealed ostensives so as to make all those who accept that boundary more likely to detect that species of moral disorder. (But the bigger question, today, as I suggested in the previous post, is how to convince people to take up the burden of civilization in the first case. We all resent civilization because it is demanding and frustrating, and its benefits are evident only to those equipped to grasp them analytically—why not allow oneself to be overcome with those resentments and seek out those increasingly available pleasures indulgence in which disqualify you from an order in which you may not fit, and which may not even admit you?)

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