with civilization has been with us all along, but is coming on now with
a new freshness and insistence, as if it were a new thing. To assail civilization
itself would be scandalous, but for the conclusion, occurring to more and
more people, that it may be civilization that is the fundamental scandal.
I won't dwell here on the fact of the accelerating destruction of the
biosphere. And perhaps equally obvious is the mutilation of "human
nature," along with outer nature. Freud decided that the fullness of civilization
would bring, concomitantly, the zenith of universal neurosis. In this he
was evidently a bit sanguine, too mild in his prognosis.
It is impossible to scan a newspaper and miss the malignancy of daily
life. See the multiple homicides, the 600 percent increase in teen suicide
over the past thirty years; count the ways to be heavily drugged against
reality; ponder what is behind the movement away from literacy. One could
go on almost endlessly charting the boredom, depression, immiseration.
The concept of progress has been in trouble for a few decades, but the
general crisis is deepening now at a quickening pace. From this palpable
extremity it is clear that something is profoundly wrong. How far back
did this virus originate? How much must change for us to turn away from
the cultural death march we are on?
At the same time, there are some who cling to the ideal of civilization,
as to a promise yet to be fulfilled. Norbert Elias, for example, declared
that "civilization is never finished and always endangered." More persuasive
is the sobering view of what civilization has already wrought, as in today's
deadening and deadly convergence of technological processes and mass society.
Richard Rubenstein found that the Holocaust "bears witness to the advance
of civilization," a chilling point further developed by Zygmunt Bauman
in his Modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman argued that history's most gruesome
moment so far was made possible by the inner logic of civilization, which
is, at bottom, division of labor. This division of labor, or specialization,
works to dissolve moral accountability as it contributes to technical achievement
in this case, to the efficient, industrialized murder of millions.
But isn't this too grim a picture to account for all of it? What of
other aspects, like art, music, literature - are they not also the fruit
of civilization? To return to Bauman and his point about Nazi genocide,
Germany was after all the land of Goethe and Beethoven, arguably the most
cultural or spiritual European country. Of course we try to draw strength
from beautiful achievements, which often offer cultural criticism as well
as aesthetic uplift. Does the presence of these pleasures and consolations
make an indictment of the whole less unavoidable?
Speaking of unfulfilled ideals, however, it is valid to point out that
civilization is indeed "never finished and always endangered." And that
is because civilization has always been imposed, and necessitates continual
conquest and repression. Marx and Freud, among others, agreed on the incompatibility
of humans and nature, which is to say, the necessity of triumph over nature,
Obviously related is Kenneth Boulding's judgment that the achievements
of civilization "have been paid for at a very high cost in human degradation,
suffering, inequality, and dominance."
There hasn't been unanimity as to civilization's most salient characteristic.
For Morgan it was writing; for Engels, state power; for Childe, the rise
of cities. Renfrew nominated insulation from nature as most fundamental.
But domestication stands behind all these manifestations, and not just
the taming of animals and plants, but also the taming of human instincts
and freedoms. Mastery, in various forms, has defined civilization and gauged
human achievement. To name, to number, to time, to represent symbolic culture
is that array of masteries upon which all subsequent hierarchies and confinements