From PHILOFHI@YORKU.CA Thu Apr 26 06:01:28 2001
Date: Wed, 25 Apr 2001 19:24:11 -0500
Sender: PHILosophy OF HIstory and theoretical history <PHILOFHI@YORKU.CA>
From: Mark Douglas Whitaker <mrkdwhit@WALLET.COM>
Subject: Re: civilization vs. (complex) society?

Civilization vs. (complex) society?

By Mark Whitaker, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 25 April 2001

A question I answered a while back on this ‘urban’ and ‘civilization’ question, for a graduate level course. Anyone care to recommend an essay publishing journal for it for me?

question I was given:

‘Lewis Mumford, a noted urban theorist and historian, once suggested that “city” and “civilization” are but two sides of the same coin: that it is impossible to identify a single instance in history where one emerged without the other. This suggests several possibilities: (1) the existence of cities is a necessary condition for the emergence of civilization; (2) the existence of a civilization is a necessary condition for the emergence of cities; or (3) the presence of an appropriate mix of certain antecedent conditions is responsible for the emergence of both irrespective of time and place. Write an essay explaining why you feel one of these possibilities best represent the underlying basis of the relationship between city and civilization. If you feel neither of these possibilities best represent your position, please feel free to construct your own.’


None of these possibilities I feel are justifiable with the historical evidence, because there is a great deal of ambiguous creation and destruction of “civilization” associated with urbanization, instead of a clear relationship of one fostering the other in all cases. Furthermore, the question is worded in a way that purports static correspondences, and societies are historical processes instead of static interrelations. Plus, I am loathe to pick up the normative term “civilization” at all as a static category, and wield it in any direction, because the term historically tends to reify an urban bias, that only certain qualities of “urbanity” are possible and are explicitly due to cities. For me it is only a shallow, static apologetics that equates “civilization” with the “urban.” It sends social scientists after dreams of static relationships, instead of after historical processes.

For instance and for evidence of the lack of static correspondence, one would be hard pressed to explain the “urbanity” and effusive politeness and acute “civilization” of Arabian desert nomads, or rural Thai or Chinese, as having something to do with urbanization. Plus, one would be hard pressed to call Chicago or Manchester seats of “urbanity” either, simply because they are “urban.” One would be hard pressed to call European cities sites of “urbanity” and “civilization” a millennia ago (the Hanseatic cities have been described as the only urban society that was entirely without a literature, a poetics, or a social ethos ; Scammel, in The First European Maritime Empires).

It is much easier to discuss the “civilizing” expression of the Catholic Church, a form of state, as the context. (I mean this in the loosest sense of self-disciplining as well as state power, as described momentarily)

There is a lot I wish to cover. First, I will demonstrate that typically the static term “civilization” is typically biased toward the urban, without any ascribing justification of characteristics. Second, I will demonstrate that “civilization” it is typically connected with the priority of state formation more than urban formation, with urbanization coming afterwards typically. Third, I will demonstrate how the relationship between “civilization” and “urban” is a rather ambiguous relationship at best, instead of a static one, with creative and destructive tendencies which are conflated together instead of easily separated. Fourth, I will offer a summary of my sense of the relationship, a relationship of process instead of static categories.


I suppose the context of what is implied by “civilization” as a static concept is well described by Webster”s New Unabridged Dictionary:

civilization, n. 1. an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached. 2. those people or nations that have reached such a state. 3. the type of culture, society, etc., of a specific place, time, or group: Greek civilization. 4. the act or process or civilizing or being civilized: Rome”s civilization of barbaric tribes was admirable. 5. cultural refinement: refinement of thought and cultural appreciation: The letters of Madame de Sevigne reveal her wit and civilization. 6. cities or populated areas in general, as opposed to unpopulated or wilderness areas: The plane crashed in the jungle, hundreds of miles from civilization. 7. modern comforts and conveniences, as made possible by science and technology: “After a week in the woods, without television or even running water, the campers looked forward to civilization again.”


According to the general slant of the above dictionary definition, cities are requirements of the definition of “civilization.” However, as Bairoch notes, everywhere that agriculture expanded failed to generate a “civilization” everywhere, or an integrated polity or society. Plus, the longevity of “civilizations” can be measured in how rural they are more than how urban they are: India and China, for example. So there is some attenuation between these two terms, instead of a conflation between them. Durable states and “civilizations” have historcially had a rural element, more than an urban element.


Connected with myview that states are important, would be that a “civilization” comes before and qualifies the expansion of the urban. Norbert Elias”s perspective on “urbanity” and the origin of the refinement of manners is useful to discuss in this context. Elias”s documented perspective is more reliable than unempirical discourses that fail to argue empirical claims and which only make normative claims that are teleological (definitions 1, 2, 4, 6), which define themselves by reference to themselves. (i.e., “advanced” is known by “high”; or “people who have reached that state,” without discussing exactly what that state is; or, the process of becoming a certain state, without describing what that is; or, cities by definition, without describing what it is about cities). Elias documented how manners and “urbanity” and courtesy were associated less with urbanization and more with state formation, as a process of micro level refinement of manners, as people come into contact with each other in more and more formalized ways and power contexts where it is important to “give off” acquiescent symbols, manners, courtesies, and pleasantries. Civilization in his view is a micro managed form of self-discipline as well as a framework of how the power of the state is expressed. It is both. This can collapse definitions 5 and 1 together. Elias”s work has been carried on by Jorge Arditi, whose Genealogy of Manners which compares courtesy and state formation in England an France provides a nice marshalling of evidence that state formation and particular frameworks of state sponsored disciplining has more to do with the “color” of a “civilization.”


One of the rationales that leaves me uncomfortable with the term “civilization” in general is that the term”s heritage has a great deal to do with European imperialism, expansion of trading arrangements, military power, and subversion of “uncivilized” peoples as a framework of power over them. This was in terms of a “faith in technology and development” as well as connected with it an expansion of Christianity, which sometimes “killed them to save their souls.” This sense is well discussed in definition 4, where Rome is considered by definition a legitimate conquering power. As Ivan Light writes, Aristotle, in his Politics, felt that warfare on people who were considered normatively lesser and unurban was ‘natural’ and ‘good.’ Other examples: the Greek cities voted democratically to raze entire cities of their enemies, so its difficult to equate urbanization and “civilization” together, particularly when it would seem to be legitimation for rather unurbane behavior and even self-destructive behavior (cities destroying other cities, whether Greece or Mesopotamia). Plus, Greek “civilization” was a very slave oriented aristocratic society, where only a small minority were considered “civilized.”

In the European context, the term “civilization” has an interesting lineage, according to Norman Davies ( Europe: A History ). It seems to have first been used as a stand-alone term during the period of European expansion in the desire to discuss the varied expressions of human societies that Europeans came into contact with, and were in turn, effected by themselves. In short, it became a political programmatic phrase, equated with imperialism. That is typically the tone I “feel” when I hear the term “civilization” bandied about in various discourses, particularly when it is used as a political policy justification. It rarely means the quality of refinement of manners, morals, and increasingly is used to justify whatever is powerful militarily.

I find it hard to countenance where Mumford wrote this quote, about “civilization and urban being the same coin,” because (1) he was a rather ‘anti-urbanist’ according to Soja, while being “pro-civilizational.” I concur with Soja on this point, since this quote”s author, Mumford, clearly and ironically writes of an ‘urbanization’ that he feels is destroying itself and “civilization” throughout the twentieth century, and making urbanity nearly defunct. This makes him rather hypocritical to state somewhere else that they are “of the same coin.” Plus, (2) he does mention cases in his The City in History where the “civilizing influence” had little to do with urbanization, as in the expansion of Christianity which was actually demoting the public senses of identity of Roman urbanity (and its state relationships). This would seem to leave him contradicting himself on many occassions. In his The Transformations of Man he even goes further and states that Christian “civilization” is responsible for the worst excesses, because it “uncivilized” state level power depredations, particularly slavery, because it was a withdrawing and mystical religious world view, despite it being a “civilizing” influence in a way, toward a particular set of normative frameworks. In this sense one can see how Christianity was both a “civilizing” and a “uncivilizing” influence simultaneously, if one wants to analyze it as a static “context” instead of part of an historical flow. In my opinion, Mumford is fudging on the data (and his own work) to write such a pat phrase if he can make such a bald uncomplicated statement about the relationship between the terms city and civilization. And (3), Mumford once more contradicts himself in his article (in Tilly”s An Urban World) which mentions that it was the state that facilitated the urban “civilization” instead of them being of the same coinage. His research is inconsistent with his pithy quote.


What is my view? The only pieces of the definition that have some tangible referents are 1 and 7, which discuss material aspects of “civilization.” I feel that this may be a useful definition of identifying “civilization” without importing a normative bias toward equating all urbanization as automatically “civil.” Certainly areas like Manchester and Leeds were extremely unurbane. This would equate well with the sense that “civilization” has a great deal to do as a state related process, or primer, for urbanization and the urbanity that comes out of patterned disciplined relationships.

This is sort of my working definition of what “civilization” entails—theorizing it as a social process instead of a static condition, the later framework, which sociology is particularly loathe to conflate as some abstract variable that is related to other ahistorical variables (like relating “city” to “civilization” instead of studying their interaction and the variances of the interaction). The question itself as well as its epistemological backdrop is merely distracting and useless for empirical research. However, if we take the thinnest anormative definition of civilization above in the Webster dictionary quote, and equate it with the material consumptive and technological aspects, certainly I would concur that this “thin version of civilization,” this material infrastructure, is equated with urbanization. Bairoch goes to great lengths in his Chapter 21 to ‘conclude’ and ‘leave beyond a doubt’ and ‘clearly state’ that cities were related to technological and material trade relationships expansion. Mumford agrees, for the European era of 1100-1450, as well ( The City in History p. 255), even if it was Christianity that he simultaneously decries and lauds as a force of demotion and creation of different frameworks of urbanity and “civilization.” He even mentions how religion instead of cities themselves, can be the foundation of a novel framework of material consumptive relationships and “civilization,” as he describes the monasteries as forming a ‘polis’ of sorts. In this sense, however, certainly it is religion or the state that is antecedent to the city, instead of vice versa. So instead of them being of the same coin, I would state pithily, that they are two different currencies, where the city typically is expanded into circulation in place of civilization, sort of like lowering the grades of silver in a coin, over history, becoming more brassy and crude. This context typically leads to novel frameworks of civilization despite and in spite of urbanization, instead of from it, typically. (I feel this has a great deal to do with who is in the state, however, and how the state is organized.)

However, instead of being an entirely critical perspective on urbanization, do note that I do maintain that urbanization provides a framework for a “civilization” of sorts, through material infrastructure and through the potential of intergroup understanding, however rare that may be, historically so far. One large criticism of equating urbanization with “civilization” is that according to any environmental history text, urbanization processes of the past have been associated with unsustainable and self-destructive of its physical and biotic environment. (Ponting, A Green History of the World; or, Mark Elvin, ed. Chinese Environmental History )

I state that any society that is unsustainable fails to be a civilization by definition, and is only a short-term aberration of consumption and self-destruction. In my sense of durability of “civilization,” there have yet to be any civilizations, only various pulses of expansion of environmental degradation, associated euphorias of invincibility, and predictable self-destruction. Then what explains urbanizations durability? Note that urbanization itself has only endured because it has been able to escape its externalized costs historically for the past 10000 years. This is because urbanization has historically been expanded in the context of an externalizable hinterland, and costs could be postponed.

Where are we presently, for this idea of ‘civililzation?’ Within the past 50 years, this hinterland has been basically removed, the first occasion in 10000 years. The context of externalizing costs is over, though the various frameworks of technology and politics and consumption are far from changing.

Thus, one should look into the processes between the expansion of a “civilization” its material relationships, urbanization, and religious epistemological changes as interrelated. The philosopher of history, William Durant, proposed a term called etherialization, to discuss how societies senses of “civilization” (he proposed) were moving to more and more “ethereal” and dematerialized abstracts. This was seen entirely as progressive. Durkheim notes the same process, in the same positive light: people”s abilities to juggle more abstract conceptions he feels leads them to a wider sense of the world. However, my view is a moderated view of this. I find I am describing the relation of “civilization” and “city” here as a form of “tangibilization” (the opposite of Durant), or an expanding materiality of social relationships and intercessions between people, and as more and more distanciated relationships that are disembedded undermine and are substituted with consolidated power relationships. This materialization is simultaneous with the etherializing of ideas, and actually facilitative of it. So, while Hegelians and Marxists fight out which is a priori—ideas or material relationships—I am more interested in the historical interrelationships between ideas and material relationships, urbanization, and states.

Therefore, my feeling that “civilization” and the “city” fail to have a one-to-one static correspondence, and they are staggered historically: while the context of the materializing city consumptive infrastructure is expanding, typically the etherialization is on the wane. If there is a relationship, similar to a coin, it is closer to a Yin-Yang correspondence in flux, instead of a one-to-one correspondence, because human societies are processes, and exhibiting processes that are capable of both demoting existing relationships between “civilization” and the “city,” as well as creating other frameworks of “civilization” historically from the ruins.

However, the “next civilization,” ideationally, has typically depended on a material hinterland as much as novel “moralized” senses of “civilization” (which have been called “axial ages” or axial events by philosopher of religion, Karl Jaspers). Using generalized concepts by Albert Hirschman, the context of “exit” has been the basis of the consumption and the politics and the ideas of urbanized societies. This context of environmental externality is being challenged by more and more “voice” from those who are feeling the externalized brunt of a particular consumptive frameworks of so called ‘civilization’ since they have no where to escape anymore to postpone addressing (politically) urbanization, environmental degradation and its associated distanciated consumptive relationships. Drawing on Marxist as well as Weberian typologies, Raymond Murphy ( Rationality and Nature ) feels, along with Ulrich Beck ( The Risk Society ) that there are “environmental classes” that are forming. I find this a bit deluded, since they are split along the particularities of existing state inclusions and exclusions in societies. Personally, my praxis is more for different frameworks of state facilitated integration of people, politics, and localities, instead of externalization of peoples politically. This links back to my sense of a potential “fourth state revolution” (in the first question)—in the expansion of locality and novel expressions of citizenship, which have been demoted for over 10,000 years (in my schema of state/urban revolution contexts.) (see Frisch, 1982, Political Science Quarterly).

However, my definition of “civilization” is more than a static appreciation of what is sustainable in relation to the urban, it has a great deal to do with discussing the process of unsustainability, and the demotion of civilization in urban societies, with the idea being to propose areas where interruptions are possible, and required to move toward relations of sustainability and “civilization.”