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What is 'civilisation'?

+8 votes
So we've had a series of questions recently that seek to clarify some of the terminology that anarchists use routinely.  I've not had the time to participate in these discussions as fully as I'd  like but I've found them really useful, so here's another topic that could probably benefit from some clarification:

What exactly are anarchists referring to when we use the term 'civilisation'?

Some potential talking points -

At what point in human history/prehistory did we start civilising ourselves? Is there a particular historical marker we can use as the beginning of civilisation (eg agriculture)?

Do humans (for the most part) civilise themselves or is it something that's imposed?

How do we de-civilise ourselves? Must it be done socially, individually or both?

What does/could uncivilised life look like?
asked Sep 6, 2014 by Yosemite (6,310 points)
Civilization means living in cities; agriculture predates cities, although civilization is impossible without agriculture.

You have illustrated part of the problem, in that there are many different definitions of civilization (usually depending on whether one is vaguely for or against it). Then there are the distinctions between definitions and characteristics; definitions require all aspects to be the same, while characteristics allow for particular quirks and/or idiosyncrasies (and more unfortunately, analogies).
The british way to spell 'civilization.' :-p
Yosemite- This is a really great, and sorely needed, question. Totally upvoted.

2 Answers

+4 votes
another beginning of an answer:
a. the source of all evil (for anarcho-primitivists)
b. a symptom of all evil (for anti-civ folks)
c. the process that will save us (for techno-philes)

civilization the word has become enlisted in the struggle to find a word that covers all the ills that we are heir to (and participate in). i have been reminded recently that fredy perlman's word was leviathan, and other people use words like kyriarchy, etc.
it is useful to have a word that means all the bits and pieces we are fighting against, but of course A Word will always be simplifying the issue(s).

so, all that said, i'll say (more or less off the top of my head) that civilization is the combination of the structures and the relationships that enable/force us to live in mass society, to treat each other and ourselves only as parts of a whole, all of which is alienated from and stupid about our connections to the planet (ie the world as it would exist without people).

not sure how satisfying that is, but a start.
answered Sep 7, 2014 by dot (57,730 points)
A good start Dot, i look forward to you fleshing it out.  :)

I wonder though, if the technophiles notice the process?  Or if they're too mesmerised by the shiny toys?
Like how many use "civilization" as a code-phrase for the 'good stuff' produced by Modern Industrial Capitalism; while they conscientiously ignore the tailings-ponds, slag heaps, and all the other 'economic externalities' necessary to the creation of their fucking toys?
"I wonder though, if the technophiles notice the process?  Or if they're too mesmerised by the shiny toys?"

I live in what's become an 'extreme sports'/tourist mecca, though I moved here before it became so. I can tell you one thing, hardly any of these "bro's/bro-ettes" notice anything. They *do* the landscape around them, not inhabit it. Their interaction is always mediated through toys.

It's a subject which stirs up a great deal of passion...usually hate, since their excuse for turning the place into a upper-crust, global capitalist playground is bound up with finger-wagging 'green' moralism.
not a bad start at all, dot.

and don't forget jz's favorite word for it:  totality.  :-)

amorfati: you touched on the "mediation" aspect, and i think that is HUGE when talking about civilization. i see a very strong correlation between civilization and mediated living.
0 votes
Civilization -- is not the same thing to everyone

In addition to concepts of social hierarchy, state, agriculture, domination, separation, cities, technology, etc., written language is often referred to as a characteristic of civilization. If so, then attempting to answer this question through language is perpetuating civilization, rather than living in some fundamentally different way. Color me guilty.

Is there a particular marker in history - no
Is civilization chosen or imposed - both
Does de-civilizing happen socially or individually - both
What does de-civilizing look like - as unique as every individual/community

I think the difficulty with naming things (i.e. civilization, good, bad, trees, whatever) is our confusion, or at least, our forgetfulness about the transitory and unique nature of things. Things are always in a state of change and transformation. Thinking they are independent of one another  (civilization/de-civilization, choice/imposition, social/individual), or are stuck in time (a definition of civilization, a particular marker to the end/beginning of it) is an illusion. Simply by virtue of discussion we tend to attempt to fix things in time and space and measure.

When would someone be able to say that civilization has ended? When the S&P500 is again under 100? When electrical blackouts in metropolitan cities in the U.S. are happening every month? When  borders between certain countries are no longer maintained by the state? When a particular polar ice cap has completed melted? When a particular number of governments or currencies collapse? When only 20% of the world population is driving a vehicle?

There may be dominant forms of social structure at any given moment, but even within hierarchies there are many differences, and there have always been people living in different ways from the majority. So maybe it’s not so important to be able to label something or determine when it originated or ended. It is our concept of linear time that tells us we must do that. We often learn more from observing and doing than from thinking. I know the most powerful things in my life have come via dreams and emotions and relationships and experiences, fighting and loving, all the beauty and ugliness that is possible at any moment. Words and descriptions can reveal those experiences and feelings and the thoughts about them, they can spark more feelings and actions, but they seem to me to fall short if they become a rigid, static picture, rather than an ever-changing story that we're telling that shapes our lives.

We can get lost in words and numbers and time. How do I live today in this moment, in my relationships with other beings and the planet? What am I resisting letting go of or fighting for? What am I willing to actually experience and observe and feel? These seem to me to be more important questions. But still I can easily find myself talking to someone about “the collapse of civilization” or the “end of money” or some such thing (I don't want any more debt or interest or lawnmowers or McDonalds or borders), until I realize again that I am a unique person telling a story that is part of the collective consciousness, and my focus can move back to a more open state of being, rather than saying "this is how it is or was or will be".

Despite my thoughts about the limitations of language, I often find it quite useful (like on this website), and especially in music and poetry where at least part of the brain turns off for a while. To use Don Henley’s words (despite that they come from a song that appears to be about an individual relationship), I think it sort of sums up my answer to the question posed here about historical markers...

I don't know when I realized the dream was over
Well there was no particular hour, no given day
You know, it didn't go down in flame
There was no final scene, no frozen frame
I just watched it slowly fade away

edited: to more directly answer the question.
answered Sep 9, 2014 by bornagainanarchist (8,140 points)
edited Sep 10, 2014 by bornagainanarchist
ba@ - i basically agree with your followup points. and if i projected your personal perspective into something more "objective", my bad. of course words and thoughts do not inherently translate into behavior. in fact, that is the response i have to your idea of "... believe something else, ... and I choose to tell and live that story."  the scope/breadth/reach, and ultimately control over so much of life, of civilization (including civilized thinking) is such that believing and telling another story is great, but actually living it is damn near impossible. at least as i see it. my good friend says, and i agree: we (humans raised in civilization) can never be truly wild (devoid of all aspects of civilization), we can only be feral. and that, only with major effort.

af - yes, the question of "choice" is indeed a complex one. even re-reading my comment, it was absolutely incomplete. i did not have any choice whatsoever about being born into the family i was born into, or being born into "civilization". however, at a certain point, i CAN make certain choices. i can move away from my family, i can choose to TRY to think and behave in ways that are not considered "civilized". given the right skills and desire, i could even probably live almost entirely outside of civilization. although the most difficult aspect of that is probably not the practical matter of physical survival outside of civilization, but of freeing myself from *thinking* in civilized ways. which is not to say that i might not choose to retain certain aspects of civilized thought. but maybe then, i wouldn't consider them "civilized".  :-)

this is a great question. how about you all come hang out around my fire pit and we can talk about it through the night, under the stars and the endless sky, eating and drinking and challenging and dancing....
did i say "my" fire pit?  how fucking civilized of me!
ba@: Again, I wasn't responding to you directly, but to funky@'s critique, adding to it in a tangential way. For my purposes whether or not funky@ got your meaning in using 'choice' is irrelevant. My response to funky@ was simply to point out one aspect in common underlying of the fables of 'human nature,' and 'choice' which pro-civilization rhetoric, particularly in defense of the modern liberal State, uses to justify itself and deflect criticism of its mediations, institutions and structure. I think this dimension, which I see as an expression of the 'soul' concept is important to critique civilization as a whole, but even more importantly, potentially freeing ourselves (even if gradually) from the confines of domestication or at least make an attempt to refuse its deepening in each of us.
"although the most difficult aspect of that is probably...freeing myself from *thinking* in civilized ways.

And this definitely is near the heart of what I was attempting to express. Thinking and critiquing civilization on its own terms, particularly in ways that uphold the soul concept (ex: 'narcissism') always justifies pro-civ arguments for civ's reason for being, particularly the liberal State, which has grounded itself in terms of a 'evil human nature,' 'sin' and so on.
Thanks to all of you for the thoughtful responses. The open and exploratory way in which most people seem to write on this site is the primary reason I've "chosen" to participate here. :)

dot, I resonate with your idea of participating in that which we reject.

funky, I appreciate your additional descriptions. And I think I  have a better understanding of what you were saying. If at some point you'd like to hear more of my "story", I'd be glad to share it with you, and I would like to hear yours.

Amor, I'm a little closer to grasping what you're saying (I think :)). I think it's easy to use words in completely opposing ways - for example, "choice" could be used to strengthen hierarchical thinking on one hand, and to weaken it on another. So I'm often looking to describe things in ways that don't use labels, or at least are words strung together that don't immediately trigger a response based on someone else's definition. What does "sustainable" even mean any more, for example?

I guess the bottom line for me is this....after we've discussed what civilization is or isn't, when it started, or how it's changing....how does that impact my life or yours in the world of form, of what use is it to me or you after we've discussed it?

Funky, I'm all in for the fire pit, the sky, laughing and arguing and dancing and partaking of food and beverage...and I'm not kidding.

Be well all of you...I'm thankful for the conversation.

edited: for grammar