Thursday, April 21, 2011

Civilization reified

(Disclaimer: Old Dog thinks postmodernism is a refuge for cowards who want to continue to serve as sprockets in the machine without acknowledging their share of culpability)

I was reading through a three-year-old thread on the site the other day.  It started out being something about Daniel Quinn versus Derrick Jensen (the cage match!).  Apparently Quinn refused to dismiss completely the possibility that civilization might be redeemable if we can craft it along a more “leaver” design.  Jensen (at least the “Endgame” version of Jensen) wants to smash it all to pieces.  But the conversation took an insipid postmodernist turn when someone started to explain that civilization was just an illusion, a collection of narratives, only images and ideas, and that all we have to do is simply realize that there really is no such thing and agree to stop playing the game.  You can’t show me civilization. You can’t point to some specific thing and say “this is civilization”—one specific comment was: “If you can plunk down ‘Civilization’ on the table in front of me, I may think twice. You call it an ‘it’, but you can't show me it.” 
This is an example of the kind of reification error that the 20th century British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle called a “category mistake” in his book, The Concept of Mind.  Ryle provides this instructive anecdote (of which I am wildly paraphrasing):  Suppose that you are a college student and that you have an elderly relative, an uncle who has spent his life in the Appalachian backwoods (not a bad idea!) and has never been to a university.  You agree to show your uncle the university that you attend and spend the whole day taking him around campus, showing him the dorms, the classrooms, the cafeteria, the library, the gym, the administration building, etc., and at the end of the day your uncle turns to you and says, “These are all really nice buildings that you have shown me, but when will I get to see the university?”  Your uncle, Ryle says, has made a category mistake.  He assumed that the university was a physical object like a building when it is instead a complex and dynamic organizational configuration that includes specific buildings and people and the highly structured interactions among them.  The word university is simply a short-hand way of referring to this complex configuration of activity.  The fact that you can’t plunk a university down in front of your confused uncle does not mean the university is not real.  Likewise with civilization: the fact that you might not be able to point to a singular physical entity or isolated event taken out of context and call it civilization does not mean that civilization is merely a story we tell ourselves, a collection of ideas and images.

And I can in fact point to specific concrete physical indicators of civilization.  I can point to buildings and roads and mechanically cultivated fields and spoiled land that used to be a forest.  And I can easily plunk an oily pelican down on the table in front of you.  These things are not linguistic constructions. They were not caused by psychological ephemera, by images and ideas, they were caused by concrete, rule-governed, context-bound activity     

Civilization, like slavery more generally, is a collection of tools used to impose and assemble power relationships for the express purpose of controlling and coordinating (goading, persuading, manipulating, forcing, coercing) behavior.  You can’t plunk slavery down on a table, and yet there has probably never been a slave who considered slavery to be just a set of ideas and images.   A plantation slave in the Deep South in 1850 could not simply decide not to play the slave-game anymore, decide that she’s had enough with the slavery narrative, and just walk away. 

Scratch that.  Many did just that.  But not without risking considerable—and painfully real—consequences.    

Note that it doesn’t take any special enlightened awareness or specific psychic weapons to resist the chains of slippery abstractions like slavery or civilization.  Sticks, clubs, and the occasional plantation fire will work just fine if you have a good plan and enough comrades.  Where the psychic weapons and enlightened awareness come in handy is in counteracting the malaise and learned helplessness that attend a life defined by powerlessness—at least enough to pick up that first stick…

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