Notes on the current stagnation of Western civilization, and its enlightenment inheritance

I think many today are concerned that the arts and sciences have somehow exhausted themselves, and that this – in and of itself – indicates that Western civilization – as a civilization – is necessarily in its decline. The arts grow ever more imitative of past sentimentality; the sciences become ever more concentrated on small details simply improving on previous discoveries – there seem no grand discoveries possible in the present instance. Meanwhile, technology continues to programmatize, even ‘robotize’ our experience, without investing that experience with any greater meaning or purpose. (We won’t here discuss political regressivism – currently everywhere present – exactly because it is partially a response to this seeming cul-de-sac in the development of new knowledge as telos of our culture – discussion for a later comment.)

All of that is, I suspect, true. Yet, though I doubt anybody is more pessimistic (even cynical) about the general trends toward stasis in our culture, I’m not entirely willing to throw in the towel and proclaim Western civilization ‘dead.’ Not just yet.

Somewhere along the line, an idea embedded itself in Western thought, probably derived from considering the history of the Roman Empire after its famous “fall” (which, by the way, never happened; the Empire’s culture just wore itself out from within). According to this notion, a civilization could grow “stagnant”; one would hope that the determination of this would be made solely on the basis of cultural and intellectual creativity, but such is not the case; instead, what really defines a “stagnant” civilization is a long period without expansion. What form of expansion? Well, artistic and intellectual, of course – that is, lack of innovation; but also, unfortunately, economic and political expansion. The assumption underlying this theory appears to be that through economic and political expansion, the civilized culture comes into contact with other cultures and, in the process of adapting to their existence, innovations in the arts and sciences are initiated. (Thus, putting it bluntly, cultural vitality depends on political/economic conquest.)

Well, this is just bunk. We think of civilizations as necessarily innovative in the arts and sciences only because civilized cultures are the only cultures in which such innovations can occur. But that being the case means precisely that civilization does not depend on innovations in order to exist as such. To be sure, those attributes we associate with civilized society are, at their first appearance, themselves innovations; but once established, there is no inner necessity that they must continue to change, even less that they must change through expansion. Valuing civilization is no excuse for appropriation of other cultures!

We must remember here, what it is that attracts us to a civilized life style in the first place. It cannot be wealth; and it cannot be mere enjoyment; and it cannot be a realization solely of an individual’s potential. Why? Because all this is attainable in the pre- (or non-) civilized lifestyles. In considering what it is that draws people into the choice to build (or belong to) a civilization, we must ask what can be accomplished in this civilized life style that cannot be accomplished otherwise. The realization of the community’s potential, certainly; but for the individual this requires a considerable amount of leisure and lack of worry – freedom from fear.

A society practicing the formalities of civilized decency without comprehension of its theory may realize a certain amount of leisure and even some respite from fear. But it will never know a lack of worry. Indeed, not knowing the ground of the formalities of decency, can itself generate the worry that perhaps these formalities are not properly performed; which of course could in certain social situations lead to misunderstanding and increase of tension and possibly even violence.

American society is such a society. Our social protocols are rigidly enforced, but lacking in all explanation. Or perhaps the difficulty is we have too many explanations, none of which actually make any sense under close examination.

The prohibitions against the so-called four-letter curse word is an indication of this, say, the word ” fuck “. Supposedly the word meant coitus, so, supposedly, mere mention of coitus in polite society was frowned upon. But the word ” rape “, with far more brutish connotations concerning the abuse of human genitals, is entirely permissible in the same society? And what could it possibly mean to exclaim (as Americans frequently might, were the word’s presumed meaning really the case) something like “what the coitus is going on around here?!” What I suspect is that the word has no meaning, or rather, that its meaning lies entirely in the fact that it is discovered inappropriate; and therefore the utterance of the word occurs at those moments when it is felt to be appropriate to speak inappropriately. And this is the sole purpose or usage of this word. Well, but by strictly enforcing this usage with no other explanation as to its impropriety, the word gets demeaned until it has no meaning. Yet the rules of its usage are rigid and sometimes rigidly enforced; but lacking any theory in its usage, Americans are frequently left burdened with worry concerning the proper usage of the word, concerning the proper place in speech this word might have, which it must have in order to be a word at all. The American English language allows for a great deal of innovation and expansion; and still it may not as yet become the language of a truly civilized society – only history can answer that. (Perhaps its sole value is to make the construction of word-salads easier for the clinically insane. But even these have their creative aspects….)

Some people make much ado over the social utterance of such language, as if the mere speaking of a word could collapse their pretenses to civilization. Of course they cannot provide any explanation for such rigidities in their social code, because these rigidities derive from arbitrary enforcement of select codes in support of the structures of their society, which is frequently inconsistent with the social code itself.

So (e.g.), the current strictures against insulting certain religious sympathies (especially in politics) really comprise an effort to maintain the status quo, across the board. This is not hypocrisy, it is an act of defense against the possibilities of change. But it necessarily involves suppression of any threat to that status quo.

For instance, the Manchurian, or Qing (Ching) dynasty of Imperial China insisted that anyone entering the presence of a social superior should undertake an elaborate bowing procedure, or “kowtow”, which included wiping non-existent dust from one’s sleeves, kneeling, pressing the forehead to the floor, etc. Now, the Chinese have a long history of civilization, but the Qing dictators were little more than poseurs. While bowing to one’s superiors is a practice we find in many hierarchical cultures (and its social implications are rather clear), this “kowtowing” was mere parody of such a formality. By enforcing it, the Qing were really humiliating their Chinese subjects, but also, at the same time, making mockery of the conventions of Chinese civilization; thus the Qing enforced the diminution of both the Chinese people and their culture. And that’s really all “kowtowing” really signified. The brushing of the sleeves, touching the head to the floor – all mere empty complications of a perfunctory ritual; and what was the real explanation for such complications? The Qing’s arrogant assertion that they could do with (and to) the Chinese anything they wished.

Stagnation may be an acceptable condition in the arts and sciences, for the time being. At any rate, it is preferable to regress. The important thing is maintaining the line, that reasoning and creativity is preferable to ‘kowtowing’ to any status quo.

But that stance is itself an inheritance of Western civilization. It is what its enemies – various regressive radical groups, whether muslim or christian – really hate about the Enlightenment.

Or as Kant wrote, defining Aufklarung: “Think for yourself!” That is our inheritance from the Enlightenment; that is the legacy of Western civilization.

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