“Civilization” refers to an ideal perpetually contested, a condition perpetually threatened, and a practice perpetually prescribed. It is a term employed by academics and cultural theorists, policy pundits, and government officials in the United States and around the world. In the view of R. G. Collingwood (1971) and a host of lesser defenders of “Western heritage,” it is the political order and cultural treasure of the West threatened by totalitarian, proletarian, and jihadist barbarities. It is the globally exportable condition of social development promoted by the United Nations Civil Society Organizations and Participation Programme. It is the seductive discipline of decorum prescribed by colonizing powers on subaltern populations critiqued in Homi K. Bhabha’s essay “Sly Civility” (1994). It is an abstract set of conditions, found in any number of world cultures throughout history, described by sociologists such as Benjamin Nelson (1973) and Stanford M. Lyman (1990).

These various usages have long jostled in print and public media. Yet they share a common history that was initially concerned with distinguishing the different social conditions discovered by Europe’s early modern exploration of the world and by the development of the empirical investigation of the past. The word was born of the Enlightenment, fathered by Victor Riqueti Mirabeau in L’ami des homes ([1756–58] 1970) to demarcate those societies that embraced civil law and put aside military rule as a means of constraining violence. Not all of its subsequent usages have escaped the Enlightenment tendency to conceive matters in the form of binary oppositions. Yet its first usage in English resulted from the desire to go beyond the conventional opposition between civil and uncivil.

“Civilization” emerged in English sometime in the 1760s or 1770s, adapted from the French civilisation to supplant the phrase “civil life.” Since the time of the anonymous 1579 treatise Of Cyuil and Uncyuil Life, English authors had debated whether rural simplicity or urbanity made a subject better able to serve the Crown. Civil life referred here to the harmonious incorporation of the subject into the public world of a nation and presupposed an effective traditional culture. The final decades of the eighteenth century made the question of civility broader than the formation of serviceable political subjects in a given nation. The revolutionary social and political agitations in British America and France framed the condition of the citizenry (as distinguished from a realm of subjects) in the generalities of abstract rights, universal laws, and utopian institutions. “Civilization” came into prominence in the discourse of the French Revolution, where it named an enduring cultural and communal organization more fundamental than the political constitution of the state, more reasonable than the cultus of religion, and more engaged with the potential for creative human action than jurisprudence.

“Civilization” thus began to operate in tension with “culture,” “nation,” “barbarity,” and “rural primitivism.” It now owed less to “civil life” than to “civility,” a term that spoke of an orderliness and integrity of society that enabled the conversation and commerce of various classes and orders within a community. “Civility” had a more inclusive and normative character than the older courtly value of courtesy. It also had a range of applications extending beyond one’s own community. Externally, “civility” stood in contrast with the disorders and social simplicity of “savagery”; it enabled conversation, diplomacy, and trade between peoples. Internally, “civility” spoke of the condition of a people at one moment in time. “Civilization,” in distinction, invoked a narrative of development or progress that depended on a stage-based theory of civil refinement.

This narrative became popular in the wake of early modern explorations of the world. Contacts with illiterate, pastoral peoples who had mastered the smelting and casting of iron set Europeans pondering the characteristics of civility. The capacity of “savage peoples” to learn technology and understand European concepts, coupled with the Europeans’ wish to incorporate these peoples as laborers and suppliers in Western imperial commerce, suggested that such persons were in a more primitive state of development. For these savage peoples to attain civilization meant that they must be educated into the arts of peace and commerce. The example of China, which Enlightenment philosophers recognized as an integral civilization, further indicated that the history of development might have more than one trajectory. (In the mid-twentieth century, Arnold Joseph Toynbee enumerated twenty-one separate civilizations in his influential twelve-volume The Study of History [1934–61].)

Sociologist Norbert Elias ([1939] 1969) described the mechanism that underlay these cultural and societal developments in the early modern West as the “civilizing process.” Elias saw this process as occurring in two cultural registers. In the nation-states of the West, a regime of masculine power centered in monarchy, and a martial aristocracy, operating under an ethic of honor and valor, was transformed into a “civil society” centered in social institutions outside the royal court, where conflict was sublimated in contests of aesthetic display, gentility, and heterosocial conversation. Outside of these nation-states, particularly in places seen as lacking literacy, centralized government, social order, and law, civilization involved a process of acculturation, enabled by commerce and the exchange of knowledge, in which civil society was created and developed.

In contrast to many of the writers Elias surveyed, he was careful to speak of process, not progress. He described a development, not a scheme of evolution or perfection. Elias thus argued for the second of two models of civil improvement that have long contended: the utopian and the processive. In the former, a civil community is perfected in accord with an ideal; in the latter, civilization is a process with an implicit but unprogrammatic tendency. The French Revolution brought the conflict between these two views into the open. The Enlightenment philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet, in Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (1795), viewed civilization as culminating in a perfection of human knowledge, spirit, and will. The problem with this model of civilization—of utopia as a program of social change—was announced in the ironic title of the masterwork of revolutionary wit composed by one of its partisans and victims, the collection of aphorisms titled Produits de la civilisation perfectionée by Nicolas Chamfort (1984). Perfected civilization for Chamfort was vanity institutionalized and enforced by the coercive power of the state.

In the wake of the French Revolution, literary Romanticism, disillusioned by the political fallout of the Enlightenment, complicated the resulting dialectics of civilization and savagery, civility and barbarity. Romantic suspicion of civilization can be traced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s celebration of the primitive in Discourse on Inequality ([1754] 1984). Civilization’s attributes—urbanity, politeness, commerce—became associated with corruptions of man. In Romantic ideology, nature and individual human genius became the counterforces to civilization. In Europe, this Romantic ideology spawned a politics of anarchism. In the United States, a less overtly political version of Romantic individualism found expression in canonical writings ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” ([1837] 1990) to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ([1885] 1985).

Nevertheless, the utopian impulses unleashed by the Enlightenment were not halted by the Romantic cult of nature. A faith in the capacity of humans to intervene in history drove various experiments in utopian community and nation building. “Civilization” became a set of programs applied to myriad peoples and nations, from social communes in the US hinterlands to blueprints for European and Latin American revolutions. “Civilization” became one of the keywords in debates over the character of the new nations created by the independence movements in South America. Domingo F. Sarmiento ([1845] 2004), in his classic Civilization and Barbarism, praised the liberalism, urbanity, and creativity of his native Argentina’s cities against the political and cultural legacy of the pampa, where ignorance, authoritarianism, and rigid custom ruled. Sarmiento anticipated many nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers in his use of “civilization” as an ideal from which to criticize the “nation.” Conversely, José Martí in “Our America” ([1891] 2002) identified “civilization” as the counterforce of liberty, a trace of colonial ideology, and a synonym for luxury. The debate between Sarmiento and Martí typifies Romantic agony over civilization in its linkage of civilization with the question of national destiny. Post-Romantic politics posed civilization as the other by which the limits of nationhood might be revealed.

As the manifestations and expressions of nationalism became increasingly extreme in the twentieth century, thinkers embraced the nonprogrammatic sense of civilization to counter the rhetoric of state self-glorification. R. G. Collingwood and other critics described the nationalist self-celebration of Germany under National Socialism and fascist Spain as “anticivilizational.” Collingwood memorably redefined the term “barbarity,” retiring its traditional sense of alien crudity and supplying in its stead the willful selfishness and philistinism of a modern nation-state.

At the same time, the nonprogrammatic view of civilization developed descriptive and critical uses. Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss argued in their “Note on the Notion of Civilization” ([1913] 1971) that certain phenomena have long existed that are “supranational” in their operation, such as tools, languages, styles of aesthetic expression, and rituals of exchange. Their interdependence and systemic reciprocity are not located within a politically determined boundary. In the descriptive and historical manifestations of “civilization,” it thus names a rough set of conditions, influenced by human action, recognized in many times and places yet lacking an immutable essence. Civilization not only has a material face but a social one as well. This human, institutional character of civilization—embodied in the phrase “civil society”—during the late twentieth century increasingly eclipsed “civilization” in the lexicon of governmental agencies and international bodies.

World officialdom, in the form of the United Nations and other international organizations, thus avoids the question of whether a “nation” will be a “civilization.” Instead, these organizations ask whether a nation possesses a “civil society.” This shift in terminology avoids the programmatic implications of civilization and its history of colonial violence, yet it alludes to a condition of political stability, urbanity, commerce, and social enrichment. The UN Civil Society Organizations and Participation Programme has viewed the formation of civil society as the goal of political development for states characterized by strongly centralized, authoritarian polities where independent institutions have not been permitted and for unconsolidated societies lacking an institutional sphere. A particular focus has been those states in the developing world emerging from autocratic rule. Since 2000, the Civil Society Programme has expanded its purview considerably to include initiatives related to democratic governance, poverty reduction, crisis prevention and recovery, HIV/AIDS, energy, and the environment. In effect, a global pragmatics of civility—marked by a citizenry’s enjoyment of civil order, a right of association, and venues for expressing public opinion, projecting communal interest, and envisioning the good life—now encompasses the whole realm of social welfare, with the exceptions of civil rights and commerce.

Witnessing the growing semantic amorphousness of the term “civil society,” we can understand why it is difficult to conceive of a clash of civil societies but not difficult to envision clashes between civilizations. “Civilization” retains its denotative character, pointing to communities that possess certain qualities of development and pursuing distinctly formed purposes. These purposes sometimes stand opposed to others. History abounds in such conflicts: Egypt and Babylonia, Greece and Rome, Catholic Spain and Protestant northern Europe. Samuel Huntington—heir to a tradition of inquiry concerned with the “rise and fall” of civilizations extending from Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century to Oswald Spengler and Toynbee in the twentieth century—theorized these recurring conflicts in his The Clash of Civilizations (1996) but failed to grasp the differences between cultures and civilizations. For a neoconservative, he is unusual in believing that an incommensurability of values exists among cultures. He fails to recognize the pragmatics of global exchange in values and goods now operating even among enemy states.

Since 9/11, the robust reemergence of a pre-Collingwood vision of anticivilization force has taken place. A host of commentators—some with popular readerships—conceive of the twenty-first century as a period in which civilization will be beset by external enemies. The nature of these enemies provokes intensive analysis because they do not map onto conventional nation-states or civil societies but operate as adherents to religious or ideological imperatives. These political actors see modern cultures as corrupt and deserving of destruction. Lee Harris’s Civilization and Its Enemies (2004) typifies a literature insistent that enmity to civilization is an authentic threat to the world’s major cultures and that an active defense against these enemies is the responsibility of those states that enjoy the benefits of civility. The articulation of the category “enemy of civilization” provoked a cosmopolitan critique, yet the persistence of terrorism directed at civilian targets over the globe in the years following 9/11 has increased popular credence in the existence of “enemies of civilization,” a credence exploitable by political regimes fixated on the erection of state security mechanisms and technologies of public surveillance.

Because the “enemies of civilization” discourse employs a renovated civilization and barbarity dichotomy, it does not conform to Samuel Huntington’s dictum that civilization’s critical function in global political discourse is to explain the deep grammar of conflicts between nation-states. Rather, it now proposes a quality of social existence inimical to barbarity, supplying an extralegal standard for the comportment of nations and movements. Civilization in this case is not utopia but an enriched condition of social existence avowed by those who enjoy it, wished for by those who do not possess it, or reviled by those who view it as pernicious. Civilization thus brings to light inequality.

Efforts to understand the origins of inequality among individuals and social groups can be traced to nineteenth-century thinkers who turned away from the definition of civilization as essence to definitions that took into account practices of social interaction that permitted an enriched quality of communal life: the stability of law, a disinclination to violence, an inclination to cooperation, and an ethic of sociability based on the tolerance of strangers. Arthur de Gobineau, in An Essay on the Inequality of the Races ([1853–55] 1967), gave this analysis a racial cast. Certain biological races were fated to savagery due in part to their intolerance of the other. Gobineau’s linkage of an interactional sociology of civilization with essentialized racism fathered a hybrid picture of civilization of great and pernicious influence. Efforts to purge interactional sociology of essentialist presumptions have been undertaken by Nelson (1973) and Lyman (1990); their “civilization analysis” claims to free social descriptions from essentialist explanations in order to develop a global inquiry that ranges from micro to macro scenes of social action.

Of greater power in countering Gobineau’s legacy have been postcolonial studies, whose leading practitioners take care to expose how the descriptive and prescriptive features of the Western discourse of civilization are characteristically intermingled. Civilization always appears in the service of some presumptive project, whether territorial conquest, commercial hegemony, evangelical mission, cultural imperialism, or the enslavement of non-Western populations (Bernal 1995; Paranjape 1998). Most, but not all, postcolonial critics are concerned with strategies for resisting the enchantment of Western civilization. These range from outright rejection to more complex engagements with the legacies of colonial power. Interestingly, some recent postcolonial thinkers embrace a pragmatics of civility and the form of civilization, seeing it as a remedy to tribalism and sectarianism. Leon de Kock (2001), for instance, offers a model of postcoloniality that disavows simple oppositionality by exploring a moment in the history of nascent African nationalism in South Africa when African subject formation was framed in apparent complicity with prescribed forms of Western civility. Similar work on the conceptual homologies between transnationalism, a favored conceptual orientation for American studies and cultural studies, and civilization as now understood by interactionalist sociology would do much to enhance the conversation in the field. Transnationalism and the interactionalist sociology of civilization both explore the pragmatics of cultural permeability on a global scale, pursuing knowledge of those values, practices, institutions, and objects that are shared among states and peoples and that contribute to responsible action among nations and persons.


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