Thursday 18 November 2010

Civilisation: Should we rehabilitate this unfashionable idea?

In Search of Civilization: Remaking a tarnished idea, by John Armstrong (Penguin, 2010)

Civilisation is in many respects an unfashionable idea, or at least one that makes many people uncomfortable. Why do we feel this discomfort, what might it say about us? I want to argue that, despite the fact that it may be uncomfortable, there is something behind the concept that is not only worth salvaging but is essential for us today.

First let´s turn to the superficial reason for the discomfort. For many, the notion of civilisation seems a repressive idea. To put it bluntly, it is merely a concept with which to beat down people of less economically developed parts of the world, invade their countries, colonise them or otherwise give a mask for various sorts of exploitation. Thus to critics the notion civilisation is inextricably tied to the way Western societies presented and thought of themselves as being objective and operating dispassionately while really acting to further their own interests. Historically the notion of civilisation operates to mask one´s self-interest (partly to oneself); it was the ideology of the hypocrite.

Many would argue that the recent war in Iraq indicates this isn´t this merely a historical point about colonial times. Even today powerful nations – America, Britain and their allies - ostensibly make war on Iraq in order to uphold or reinstate civilised values, while really pursuing self-interest such as the attempted to control of Gulf oil fields. More controversially Blair´s famed ‘foreign policy with an ethical dimension’ seemed to mark nothing less than a period of continual war against the supposedly uncivilised: Serbs, Hutus in Rwanda and others, allowing the British government and its allies to pose as moral saviours of the world and stand tall for civilisation. Perhaps the mask has now slipped as it becomes ever clearer that the governments and security services of America and Britain have connived at torture either directly or at one remove.

But does this mean the concept of civilisation is intrinsically hypocritical? Is all talk of civilisation merely reactionary and hypocritical, a concept with which to dominate other, merely a mask that we should now lay aside? In his book, In Search of Civilisation, John Armstrong gives us reasons to doubt this and links the notion back to our highest aspirations– for society and the individual. He sets out to do nothing less than lay the groundwork for a concept of civilisation that makes it a necessary for us today.

The meaning of civilisation

Kenneth Clark, in his famous television series Civilisation declined to define what civilisation meant; but argued he knew it when he saw it. Armstrong too, opens his book by noting that there might be some basic problems with defining the meaning of the word but offers four possible definitions that then he uses to organise the rest of the book. His aim however is more than purely definitional is to attempt to re-forge the concept such that it might do some useful work today. He has four starting points: civilisation as belonging, civilisation as material progress, civilisation as the art of living, civilisation as spiritual prosperity.

It’s worth examining each of these points before returning to the deep reason we are wary of the notion of civilisation today: it reflects our society´s anxiety and lack of confidence in asserting any strong values. Let´s look at each in turn.

1 - Civilisation as belonging

Civilisation on this analysis is to do with our different ways of life (or living). Further, the word civilisation designates a set of values embodied in a particular vision of the world and ways of living a (good) life in it. This analysis construes civilisation as meaning a particular way of living identified with a particular historical culture.

If there is a dominant way of thinking about civilisation today is it probably through this prism; and our analysis of the supposed hypocrisy of Western states above, turned on it. Thanks to Samuel Huttingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis this notion is usually invoked to comment on the contemporary post-Cold War order as being dominated by irreconcilable conflicts born from conflicting civilisational world views. civilisation on this analysis rather indicating a creative wellspring seems to indicate nothing so much as irreconcilable differences and mutual incomprehension.

To an extent this is simply where we are in the dominant discussion of civilisation today. Does the ‘civilisation as ways of living’ idea mean we must concede that there is ‘clash of civilisations’ going on.  There is certainly conflict but I think its character of how much of it is playing out should tell us that the antagonists on both sides are rather shallow.

Take the arguments over burqa bans and the wearing of the hijab, where on the one hand some Muslims affect medieval dress in order to celebrate their difference and strangeness. And on the other Western governments posture in the most reactionary way by trying to tell people how to dress and restricting their civil liberties; both sides are participating in mainly reactionary ways. You could be left thinking neither civilisation has much creativity left although some of the responses indicate otherwise: see for instance NiqaBitch who protest anti-burqua laws wearing niqabs, stilettos and hot-pants outside French government buildings.

But is it really true for instance that Islam and the West are caught in an unhealthy antagonism between mutually hostile ‘ways of life’? Does this notion of civilisation destine us to conflict? It is worth questioning some of this. The problem here is the obsession with superficial cultural markers – shared by all sides - rather than deep a wide argument over how we should live in the 21st century. Ways of life can be very shallow and reactionary when they are organised around demonstrating difference. What is missing from the discussion is any sense of real clash of ideas beyond the superficial and defensive, or, more thought on refining what it means to reinvent and enrich our cultures and ourselves. 

As many multiculturalists point out, we need to share what is best and not be scared of what is different. But this will have little value if we are not prepared to go beyond a patronising ‘respect´ for the other and rather have an argument about values that look beyond the narrower and parochial sides of all of our cultures to what is elevated and profound. In the case of the burqa bans, this is really the clash of civilisations as farce.

The mere sense of belonging does not guarantee civilisation, although Armstrong argues the relationships it sets up are the ground from which civilisation grows. Nevertheless we have to look beyond it in order to get to the heart of things.

2 - Civilisation as the material advancement of sophisticated societies

Armstrong´s second idea is that the word civilisation indicates that a given society has achieved a certain level of material, economic and maybe political sophistication. On this analysis, the possibility of civilisation is seen as being intimately connected to the material advancement of sophisticated societies.

Any serious examination of the growth and expansions of civilisation notices that the achievement of their most profound expression cannot be separated from material progress and expansion. Civilisation’s great accomplishments invariably spring from periods of material advancement. Similarly for the individual it is difficult to live a refined life on a shoestring, just as it requires space and resources to develop your taste and sensibility. Poverty tends to degrade spiritually as well as materially. But it is more difficult to seriously develop material culture without investing in it. It is particularly important to remember this at a moment where austerity is being upheld as moral good. Today demanding more likely to be seen as a crime.

It is important to see that austerity was already being upheld as a good in itself long before it was argued to have an economic necessity. Green activists like George Monbiot argued the recession would be good as it would force us to conserve resources. Psychologist Oliver James invented the mental illness ‘affluenza’, arguing that having more stuff was likely to make us more unhappy and those unfortunates without unhappier still – at the limit driving us mad. Austerity politics argues that we had too much and having less might actually be good for the soul. But its intellectual forerunner, the idea of sustainability, already held that we had a highly problematic relationship with the material stuff of our culture. Sustainability is the thesis that we have outrun our material base and that much of our cultures underlying tendencies are essentially destructive. Creativity is to be found primarily in nature, not in ourselves.

All this is I think misguided, because living the civilised life requires a relationship with things and sufficient material enrichment to do this properly. Connecting to the sources of creativity in our culture requires us not only to renew resources but to deploy them in order to create more refined and elaborate ways of being human. Armstrong argues that barbarism is the incapacity to have deep relationships and especially a relationship with things. Being austere won´t help us to be civilised and, organising our societies around austerity is more likely to spiritually impoverish than spiritually enrich us. Austerity is the worst possible basis for refining our ability to live. This brings us to the third aspect of civilisation.

3 - Civilisation as the Art of Living

A third possibility is that the word civilisation indicates a given society has made it possible that – at least for some - living can become a source of refined pleasure and a richer and more fully human life. What is interesting about Armstrong´s analysis here is that it does not simply oppose refined enjoyments to base pleasures but recognises that former are an elevated form of the latter. Armstrong writes:

‘Greed is the beginner´s version of appreciation – where taking in a great deal of something is imagined to be the way of getting what you need. Vulgarity – getting excited by money and a famous name – is a beginner´s guide to love, it is the search for a meaningful point of contact, only it is unable to imagine what intimate and real engagement is like.’

This could easily come off as a snobbish point but there is something more interesting going on here. Armstrong´s determination to link even the most elevated experiences to their source in corporal pleasures notices their roots in more basic human experience and need while not reducing the former to the latter. He uses Maslow´s hierarchy of need to argue this at more length and that it is civilisation which provides the resources to convert and enrich our more basic bodily needs and desires into more elevated passions.

Let´s take drinking. There is a connection between teenagers getting drunk and connoisseurs enjoying fine wines. The latter may be an elevated pleasure for the cultivated, while the former mere intoxication, but enjoying wines would not have its character without some of the same intoxicating pleasure being elevated to connoisseurship. Refined pleasures need to be made more widely available rather than simply attempting to cut-off there wellsprings but this requires that we first feel them in their more elemental form. We seem to have forgotten that as Blake said ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’. Moral panics about binge drinking, so popular in the UK, never accept the possibilty that the lager lout of today might be the connoisseur of tomorrow. This part of the book is a nice antidote to the tendency to sermonising and repression in contemporary society.

Armstrong argues we can cultivate and elevate ourselves in the minutiae of our lives. The Japanese tea ceremony – as described in Kakuzo Okakura in The Book of Tea is important to him precisely because he sees it as a vehicle for raising the simple, humble and everyday to something of refined beautiful– it encourages us to valorise life rather than reduce it. All this is valuable against a background of reductive ideas about human nature and human life. Armstrong is here connecting with ancient philosophical tradition which see civilisation as being the art of living. It implies that everyday life needs more autonomy for its fashioning but also that it need be driven by a sense of self-cultivation*. Society´s paranoid attempts to control and legislate over every source of bodily pleasure also forget that autonomy is necessary for their cultivation.

On this analysis the civilised society must provide ways of developing and enriching its citizens; it reflects a need to cultivate ourselves. Thus the capacity for culture is linked to the autonomy of individuals. This sentiment is against the grain of much contemporary British life where the freedom to cultivate our tastes always seems to come with a health warning.

Attempting to see the relationship between the higher and the lower is necessary but to raise the one to the other requires recognising there is some hierarchy of value here. Civilised societies however can be considered as having greater epicuric potential, refinement allows us to enjoy more and in a more refined way and this is the key to the fourth aspect of civilisation that Armstrong analyses.

4 - Civilisation as Spiritual Prosperity

On the fourth analysis, civilisation refers to the best and most elevated ideas, works of art, or ways of living and feeling that a society produces. civilisation on this analysis is the apex of what society and can express of produce; it is not the average or what is done or what is done in general, but rather refers to the best or finest that a society allows. On the individual level it refers to the capacity for an elevated and deepened life.

Armstrong comes out against consideration of culture that doesn´t reach beyond itself to more human values. In Chapter 24 of the book he reflects on his time visiting at the I Tatti, the Renaissance art research institution at Fiesole (just outside Florence) research institution. He discusses a dinner where the director talks of his research into the meaning in Renaissance painting of whether the camels carrying the Magi (or three Kings) are depicted with their legs crossed or uncrossed.  This for Armstrong is problematic because the director lacked a sense of why this might be important, even if in the most general way. Cut off from meaningful ends, such research becomes also severed human flourishing, simply the accumulation of knowledge with no particular end. He may have a point in this case, but we have to be careful here. At a historical juncture where every cultural pursuit must show its utilitarian purpose it is counterproductive to come out against knowledge for knowledge´s sake. Much higher culture requires pursuing an idea even if we don´t know exactly what that idea will express.

The more urgent danger to spiritual prosperity is the tyranny of relevance where all knowledge must be shown to be relevant to the here and now, or in its university guise, the student´s narrow interest. The attempt to say that whatever people are interested in is worthy of the same note as anything else. Let´s take recent reforms in British Education’ where student’s feedback will start to determine which courses run. The funding crisis in education has tended to obscure a deeper crisis in higher education which has tended to make Universities just another part of UK PLC severed from their once vital function of carrying higher learning forward.  Some conscious orientation toward passing on society´s knowledge must be a part of any civilised culture and this of course requires a strong valorisation of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

The tyranny of relevance tends to fob people off with a second class education, while the increasing customer focus of higher education just panders to whatever people want to study. Buffy the Vampire Slayer may be fun and even clever, but is it really worth writing your PhD thesis on? Will it lift you beyond yourself? This is likely to require something that is harder to grapple with. One day Buffy may be recognised a great work of art, but its study today is unlikely to elevate us in the same way as reaching outside ourselves to hard works of culture. Some appreciation that the good and the beautiful and the worthy may not just be the first thing that appeals to us but may require some work on our parts is necessary. Being able to understand the apex idea of civilisation requires deepening and widening our minds. This is where Armstrong thinks contemporary society has lost the plot in its relativising of values.

The need for civilisation

It is essential that any healthy civilisation must look forward and have the capacity to renew itself. What Armstrong set out to show was not simply that there are different perspectives for looking at the concept of civilisation but that some re-engagement with the notion of civilisation is necessary to reattach society to its creative wellsprings. If the barbarians are at the gates today it is because we have given up on this capacity to renew our civilisation. His book helps us understand some of the current difficulties with articulating a view of the good life and the good society.

And this I think brings us back to the real reason that we are uncomfortable about the notion of civilisation today. It is not just the negative associations with a neo-colonialism to which we react but a dominant cultural mood which is nervous of asserting any strong values at all, or that one work of art, or thought or activity has intrinsically more value than any other. Values we are always told are relative – although it is seldom explained relative to what. It is this cultural climate that is really inimical to the full-blooded and positive account of civilisation Armstrong seeks to articulate.

Sometimes this can sound a bit reactionary. For instance several reviews of the book have focused on Armstrong´s distaste for some of the more celebrated works of the last hundred years namely Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, whom he labels ‘creations of a profoundly damaged culture’. This is may be so, but in Hirst´s case at least there is an attempt to hold up a critical mirror to society, and this mood – not to say moment – of art Armstrong has difficult accounting for. Although he is clear what he thinks of post-modern art, one wonders what he thinks of Modernism? Any attempt to this kind of job must uphold particularities of taste over others by the very fact of claiming that some works of culture require refined sensibilities (Stockhausen´s music) and others (the Big Mac) do not. Yet clearly we do find some cultural products worthier than others even if trying to say why that might be is problematic. Armstrong´s idea that some objects – works of art – just sustain more complex relationships than others seems a good starting position. Denying this just seems absurd and yet somehow it has become the default position in society at large.

Can we and should we uphold the idea of civilisation today? Yes, we need an elaborated concept of civilisation partly because it makes sense of why it is admirable to cultivate oneself, to develop a fuller life through and expanded appreciation of people, objects and ideas; why seeking refined values is necessary for both the individual and society; and why a high culture tends to require the ability of people to choose for themselves. Partly and importantly, because it helps articulate the need for material advancement in order to have the capacity to elevate ourselves through the construction, use and appreciation of things, it is a bulwark against accepting austerity culture. It also helps us understand why being prepared to argue about values is necessary for a culture to develop. So it might help us ditch our apologetic attitude to the fact that some cultural objects simply mean more than others. The unapologetic notion of civilisation is one that can be used to oppose various strands of relativism, give a fuller account of what it means to be human and in general will help us live the good life.


This is an edited version of an introduction to the first discussion of the new Lisbon Salon in Portugal, which took place on 6 November 2010

* This point takes up the recent turn in philosophy in helping teach us how to live. Anyone who has been in a philosophy department in the last fifty years might find this particular turn something of surprise. Armstrong does one of the most successful jobs in showing us why it is important.


Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.

Resources

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.