12 October 2012
Last August in The Temporal Structures of Civilization I suggested that we might think of early modern civilization — what I have called Modernism without Industrialism — as an abortive civilization. Modern civilization, sensu stricto, was preempted and essentially overtaken by industrialized civilization, or, as I now like to say, industrial-technological civilization.
Implicit in this claim is the idea (not explicitly formulated in my post of this past summer) that our civilization or any civilization might be suddenly and unaccountably preempted by a macro-historical revolution that changes everything, if only that revolution is sufficiently large and catastrophic. Those were my thoughts of high summer, and now it is fall and the rains have begun. I have been meaning to return to some of these themes, and the change in the weather is as good a reason as any to revisit my less-than-sunny summer thoughts.
The most studied macro-historical transitions in Western history are 1) the transition from classical antiquity to the middle ages, and 2) the transition from the middle ages to modernity. Both of these transitions have must to teach us, and it is remarkable that the differences between these two macro-historical revolutions are so schematic that they also seem to have been formulated to give us two radically different perspectives on what it means to make the transition from one form of civilization to another.
The transition from medievalism to modernism was gradual, continuous, and incremental; any attempt to draw a clear line between medieval civilization and modern civilization must adopt some conventions simply in order to make the distinctions, and in adopting historical conventions we know that we could have chosen our conventions differently.
Despite the gradual transition from medievalism to modernism, the medieval mind and the modern mind could not be more different. Their separation in time was gradual but the result was nearly absolute incommensurability. To formulate it in Aristotelian modalities, it was the accidents of of life that remained continuous in the transition from medievalism to modernity, even while the essence of life fundamentally changed. There is a sense in which we could say that there was an essentialist revolution that left accidents unchanged.
The transition from antiquity to medievalism, on the other hand, while it did take several centuries to consolidate as a macro-historical revolution, involved a violent break with the past and its traditions — actually, several violent breaks in tradition. There was the relative suddenness of the abandonment of classical religious traditions in favor of Christianity; there was the collapse of any unified Roman legal and political power in Western Europe; there was the break with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, which continued on for another thousand years (turning itself into what Toynbee would have called a fossil civilization); there was the collapse the urban life in Western Europe and the flight from the cities, and with this came a radical economic transition from a unified system of commerce across the Roman Empire to a self-sufficient manorial system.
Although this transition from antiquity of medievalism involved a series of violent social dislocations, the scale of which have not been seen since in Western civilization (with the exception of the Black Death and industrialization), the medieval mind believed itself to be unchanged in essentials from the world of classical antiquity. It was common rhetorical and indeed an intellectual trope of the middle ages for people to speak of themselves as Romans and to assume that their world was simply a greatly diminished and impoverished Roman Empire. Rather than thinking in terms of a new civilization that had been born with the passing of classical antiquity, it was said that mundus senescit — the world grows old — and it was thought that the peoples of time were simply waiting for the old world to end.
From an historiographical perspective, medieval civilization is an historical phenomenon of great value, because it represents a fully contained macro-historical division of western history, with a more-or-less clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. In other words, we have the full arc of the story of medieval civilization.
Somewhere (I don’t recall where as I write this) I read that someone characterized the upshot of Toynbee’s historical effort as embodying the idea that civilizations are the proper unit of historical study. Civilizations are a unit of historical study — one unit among many other possible units of study — but every epistemic order of magnitude has its proper units of historical study. Those units are the “individuals” recognized by the conceptual infrastructure of a given epistemic order of magnitude.
Different objects of historical study will also mean different forms of historical transition between the objects in question. Civilizations have characteristic forms of transition. Demographic macro-historical transitions that affect the entire human population of the Earth, like the transitions from hunter-gatherer nomadism to agriculturalism, and then the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism, are of another order of magnitude. It is no wonder that the modernism of civilization gave way before the demographic revolution of industrialization; the latter is a far larger historical force that can easily swamp developments as relatively small as those on the scale of civilization.
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6 February 2012
In Geopolitics and Biopolitics, and again in Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics, I suggested that the struggle between the geopolitical perspective and the biopolitical perspective could be a significant constituent of the ideological struggles in the coming century and centuries.
In so saying, I could be interpreted as saying that one epoch of history marked by the nation-state and its theoretical expression in geopolitics is slowly beginning to yield its place to an incipient epoch of history that will, in the long term, be marked by the dissolution of the nation-state and the theoretical justification of this dissolution in biopolitics. Since this is one interpretation (inter alia), I want to address this immediately simply in order to say that this is not what I am saying when I explicitly contrast the geopolitical style of thought with the biopolitical style of thought.
I would not say that the age of the nation-state, and its implicit theoretical expression in geopolitics, constitutes a division of macro-history on the order or nomadism, agriculturalism, or industrialism. The institution of the nation-state emerges in the agricultural paradigm and is preserved in the transition to industrialism, and thus represents a continuity, much like the fact of settled life, which originates with agriculturalism and remains the norm under industrialism.
It would be entirely plausible to make the argument that the advent of the nation-state is a political event on the level of macro-history, and that we ought to name a new division of macro-history on the basis of this form of socio-political order. I would not myself make this argument, but certainly the argument could be made. The advent of the nation-state is important, but not, in my opinion, that important.
I assume that it is possible that a struggle between the geopolitical perspective and the biopolitical perspective could proceed even as the macro-historical division of industrialism is consolidated and the process of globalization brings industrial-technological civilization to the planet entire.
Moreover, the struggle between the geopolitical and the biopolitical could animate the development of any of the possible scenarios for future macro-historical divisions such as I have identified: singularization, pastoralization, extraterrestrialization, and, most recently, neo-agriculturalism. It could even be argued that the next future will develop as a result of this conflict, much as Marx thought that communism would develop as a result of class conflict.
It is not that I suppose that the geopolitical and the biopolitical perspectives are indifferent to any and all of these macro-historical outcomes — I seems to me that the geopolitical perspective would be most likely to lead to extraterrestrialization while the biopolitical perspective would most likely lead to pastoralization or neo-agriculturalism if it were to become the dominant mode of thought — but rather that the dialectic of geopolitics and biopolitics is the form of development that will issue in a novel macro-historical division, and it is a further question, beyond the mere fact of the dialectic, which mode of thought becomes (or remains) dominant.
In any of these long term scenarios for macro-history I don’t think that the nation-state as we know it today will remain the central feature of political organization. Some form of political organization that is the successor to the nation-state system, and which evolves out of the nation-state system, is likely to prevail, but in the case of global, macro-historical developments, the geographically defined nation-state must give way to forms of political order less dependent upon geographical boundaries. It is not likely that the successor to the nation-state system will involve a complete dissolution of these boundaries, but rather a change in boundaries — their extension, extrapolation, or transformation.
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