The Iterative Conception of Civilization
19 July 2011
A couple of months ago in The Heroic Conception of Civilization I attempted to give an account of a conception of civilization that no longer defines the parameters of the civilization we have today. Now it is time to turn to the conception of civilization that does describe the parameters of the civilization that we enjoy today, and this is the iterative conception of civilization. I have written a great many posts about contemporary technological, industrial, and urbanized civilization as we know it today. The iterative conception of civilization is not identical with these contingent properties of civilizations.
The difference between the heroic and iterative conceptions of civilization and other distinctions between technological and non-technological, industrial and agricultural, or urbanized and rural civilizations is that the heroic/iterative conception is a fundamental structural feature that reflects the Volksgeist and the Zeitgeist. An heroic people or an heroic time will give birth to an heroic civilization, whether that civilization be urban, industrial, technological or not. And a non-heroic people or a non-heroic time will give birth to a non-heroic civilization. There are probably many ways to constitute a non-heroic civilization, but that which interests me as the nearest to being the antithesis of the heroic is the iterative.
In The Heroic Conception of Civilization I argued that the heroic interest is always in that which is singular. Repetition has no interest to the heroic spirit. If something has been done, the hero loses all interest in it. For the heroic spirit, deeds are achievements to be celebrated. For the non-heroic spirit, mimesis is the basis of life. A singular accomplishment is, for non-heroic civilization, merely a proof of concept, and once the proof is in, the real business of iterating the concept for the masses can begin.
The iterative conception of civilization truly comes into its own with the emergence of industrialization and urbanization, though it is not absent in the pre-modern world. While early Greek civilization constituted a paradigm of the heroic conception of civilization, once the heroic age had passed and age of Hellenism had begun, the works of civilization could be iterated throughout the Mediterranean basin. Kenneth Clark made this point in his Civilisation: A Personal View, and I have captured a couple of frames from this above to demonstrate the Hellenistic mimesis of Roman civilization.
While the iterative conception of civilization was realized to a limited extent in classical antiquity, as well as during medieval civilization with the feudal template applied throughout Europe, as I noted above the iterative conception truly comes into its own with urbanization and industrialization. The typical city of the middle ages resembled something organic, as I have noted in The Rational Reconstruction of Cities. With the emergence of science, technology, and industry in an escalating loop, it rapidly becomes apparent that the telos of the city is the iteration of a certain urban order, most obviously manifest in the orderly blocks of well designed cities.
Industrialization also thrives on iteration, both driving iteration in the form of mass production and being driven in term by the demand of mass consumption. Regularity and standardization allows from the indefinite iteration of cities, both in number and extent, of consumer goods, of market institutions that bring together producers and consumers, and all the routine infrastructure of industrialized civilization. In my post Anonymization I suggested that, in the ancient world, production rose to the level of routine, but did not make the transition from routine (albeit at nearly industrial levels) to mass production. With industry driven by the systematic exploitation of science and technology, production becomes mass production, as and a consequence, labor becomes anonymous. I called this process anonymization.
I have consciously borrowed the term “iterative” from the iterative conception of set theory. In George Boolos’ classic paper, “The Iterative Conception of Set” (1971), he characterizes the iterative conception as follows:
“…sets are formed over and over again: in fact, according to it, a set is formed at every stage later than that at which it is first formed. We could continue to say this if we liked; instead we shall say that a set is formed only once, namely, at the earliest stage at which, on our old way of speaking, it would have been said to be formed.”
Thus there is a certain inevitability to iteration: earlier formed sets call forth the later formed sets, so that the whole cumulative hierarchy is a kind of organic whole following from an inner set theoretic vitalism that drives the whole process of set formation forward.
Much of what Boolos says about sets according to the iterative conception of sets can be said, mutatis mutandis, of the artifacts of industrialized civilization, and even of the individuals who populate the relentlessly expanding conurbations of industrial civilization.
It could be regarded as merely ironic that individualism has emerged as a mass phenomenon following the end of the age of heroic individualism (and what Russell said about “splendid individuals”), unless it is more than ironic and there is in fact a social mechanism that has taken individual heroics and transformed it into (or displaced it onto) heroic masses. Indeed, with the French Revolution and its manifesto, Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, we see the emergence of a demand for the rights of classes of individuals, and not merely for individual rights. This development was only to accelerate in the following centuries, reaching its full fruition with communist revolutionary movements in the twentieth century that overthrew traditional (heroic) forms of imperial rule. The tiresome propaganda art of Soviet and Chinese communism relentlessly celebrated the heroic worker as a kind of compromise between the heroic individualism of personal rule and the bourgeois individualism of western capitalism.
I have also chosen to employ the language of set theory because of the role of what logicians call extensionality in set theory. In set theory, the only thing that matters is set membership. Nothing else matters. Nothing survives of an individual except that fact of its inclusion or exclusion from a set. The constitutive members of an iterative civilization are similarly reduced to mere membership in the civilization; nothing else about them matters. From this arises the anonymity and the feeling of being a mere cog in a machine that is so typical of industrialized civilization.
I could, with equal justification, call this iterative conception of civilization the mimetic conception of civilization or the extensionalist conception of civilization.
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