American Civilization

24 June 2009


us capitol

In the Foreward of his Philosophical Remarks Wittgenstein mentions in passing “the main current of European and American civilization.” What exactly does he mean by this? Well, I don’t think he would have attached much to the comment; Wittgenstein made a few interesting remarks about civilization that I hope to examine at some time, but it wasn’t a focus of his interest. Indeed, he evoked “European and American civilization” in this context as a stalking horse for his own views, saying that this main current was, “alien and uncongenial to the author.”

Is there a main current of European and American civilization? Is there only one civilization between the two, or is there — instead or also — a distinctive American civilization? As I said, I don’t think Wittgenstein placed any great emphasis on the above-quoted remark, but the context and character of it implies that when he said “American” he was thinking of North America, and the idea there is a distinctively American civilization implies something about the entire Western Hemisphere, and indeed it implies the Bolton Thesis, that there is a unity of history in the Western Hemisphere. Once we have made it thus far, as can then further divide the question and ask whether there is a distinctive North American civilization separate from Latin American civilization (as maintained, for example, by Samuel Huntington).

In an interview with G. Charbonnier, the great structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss distinguished between looking at a society from the inside and from the outside:

…it is one thing to look at a society from the outside and quite another to look at it from the inside. When we look at it from the outside, we can put a certain number of positive or negative signs against it, determine the degree of its technical development, the extent of its material production, the size of its population and so on, and coolly give it an objective rating, which we can then compare with the ratings we have given to various other societies.

But when seen from the inside, these few inadequate elements are amplified and transformed for each member of a given society, whatever may be its nature; whether it is the most highly civilized or the most primitive is of no importance, it is bound to be full of subtle significances.

Conversations with Claude Lévi-Strauss, G. Charbonnier, Grossman Publishers, Cape Editions, pp. 22-23

American civilization, such as it is, if it exists at all as a distinct historical entity, has been frequently described from without, from the outside, from the perspective of the outsider, and probably anyone who has lived in North America for a considerable period of time has felt the inadequacy of these descriptions for one reason or another.

The civilization represented by the US in particular has been and is deeply misunderstood and misinterpreted, especially by Europeans, less so by Latin Americans, although Rodó’s famous essay Ariel represents a particularly influential misconstrual of North American civilization and culture. Rodó, it should be remarked, was intellectually indebted to French modernism, a culture (or civilization, if you prefer) still deeply Catholic in character. (Rodó, I might mention, like the earlier Comte de Lautréamont who contributed so substantially to French modernism with his Maldoror, and like the later Eduardo Hughes Galeano, was an Uruguayan. To get a flavor of the place of Uruguay in modern Latin America the reader is urged to read Borges’ short story “Funes el memorioso”.)

We could say (although it would be a little too neat to be quite true) that Latin America, or at least its creole representatives of Western civilization, inherited the traditional doctrine of Western civilization though very little of the intellectual curiosity, skepticism, and iconoclasm, whereas North America inherited the full measure of curiosity, skepticism, and iconoclasm but with very little of the doctrine. Of course, Latin America received this doctrine of Western civilization from Spain, which never experienced the Reformation, and was for the most part insulated from the tumult of Europe’s religious wars by the Pyrenees and by its special brand of Catholic piety.

We might also note in this connection that Kenneth Clark characterized the high culture of European civilization as being largely dependent upon the Catholic tradition, which he called a civilization of the image in contradistinction to the civilization of the word that emerged from Protestantism, and which dominates North America as Catholicism (with indigenous accretions) dominates South America. In fact, the nebulous term “Latin America” can be given meaning and unity in relation to the place of the Latin church holds in the life of Latin America — and this is a unity that it does not otherwise possess, as linguistically distinct Brazil and the ethnically distinct Andes and the cultural distinction between indigenous and creole peoples bears witness.

We all know that the image of the US in the world is largely a product of the eastern seaboard. About this, I have an anecdote. A friend of mine who is from San Francisco subsequently moved to New York City. As it is difficult for me personally to imagine that anyone from the west coast would want to move to the east coast, I asked him his reason for the move. He said that the eastern seaboard was closer to Europe, not only physically but also spiritually. Well, it should be no surprise then that Europe sees US culture and civilization as based in that part of the continent, that part of the New World, that most resembles them, though even this they still see through a glass, darkly.

The Midwest is central to American civilization but is rarely recognized as such.

The Midwest is central to American civilization but is rarely recognized as such.

There is an insufficient appreciation of the contribution of the Midwest to American culture, and this lack of appreciation is particularly evident among outside observers of the US. Yet the Midwestern contribution to American civilization is very real, very deep, and vividly present. Midwesterners tend to be dismissed as hicks, hayseeds, and rednecks, perhaps more sophisticated than the isolated peoples of Appalachia, but only marginally so. They are the agricultural proletariat of the industrial age and are widely thought to share in the rural idiocy to which Marx consigned that class. But one can learn more about North American civilization by listening to an hour of the country western music that is the mainstay of the region than from a shelf of academic studies. And what one learns is not always what one expected to learn.

There is a contemporary country music ballad written by songwriter Jimmy Webb and originally recorded by him in 1977 titled “The Highwayman,” which was subsequently re-recorded by several artists, most notably recorded together by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in 1984 and released in 1985. In the latter year the song rose to number one on the country western chart and spent twenty weeks total on the chart. The lyrics of the song portray four distinct incarnations of a single soul, and are as follows:

I was a highwayman. Along the coach roads I did ride
With sword and pistol by my side
Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade
Many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade
The bastards hung me in the spring of twenty-five
But I am still alive.

I was a sailor.  I was born upon the tide
And with the sea I did abide.
I sailed a schooner round the Horn to Mexico
I went aloft and furled the mainsail in a blow
And when the yards broke off they said that I got killed
But I am living still.

I was a dam builder across the river deep and wide
Where steel and water did collide
A place called Boulder on the wild Colorado
I slipped and fell into the wet concrete below
They buried me in that great tomb that knows no sound
But I am still around… I’ll always be around… and around and around and
around and around

I fly a starship across the Universe divide
And when I reach the other side
I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can
Perhaps I may become a highwayman again
Or I may simply be a single drop of rain
But I will remain
And I’ll be back again, and again and again and again and again…

I have quoted this in full to give the reader the opportunity to make his own estimate of the song. It is not a great song. It is more like the sketch of a great song. The central idea has been captured, but there are several infelicities in the lyrics and a few awkward spots that could be cleaned up if the culture industry didn’t drive such things to be released immediately rather than after they had been perfected. Nevertheless it is a song that has resonated with many people. From the point of view of the doctrine of Western civilization, which is essentially Christan civilization, the song is about as unorthodox as could be imagined. And this signal lack of orthodoxy resonated profoundly with a large segment of the American population. Even the religion of North American civilization, which many people believe to be sacrosanct, is subject to a pervasive skepticism and iconoclasm. And it is not only this one song. In this connection I might also cite the notably iconoclastic country western music of Lyle Lovett.

Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, left to right, recorded the Jimmy Webb song The Highwayman and made a commercial success of it.

Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, left to right, recorded the Jimmy Webb song The Highwayman and made a commercial success of it.

Moving along beyond the Midwest there is the intermountain west, between the Rockies and the Cascades. This is another source of American civilization, and indeed an iconic source of American mythology, as this is the land of the cowboy. The intermountain west is a world unto itself, as different from the Midwest as the Midwest is different from the eastern seaboard. It is not a land of agriculture proper, but of pastoralism, and indeed the figure of the cowboy is that of a modern nomad. The difference between a culture of pastoralism, as in the intermountain west, and a culture of temperate zone agriculture, as in the Midwest, can be profound — as profound as the difference between the settled peoples that created civilization and the raiding nomads from the steppe who prey upon them.

A modern nomad, the cowboy is a legendary figure of the American intermountain west and figures prominently in American national mythology.

A modern nomad, the cowboy is a legendary figure of the American intermountain west and figures prominently in American national mythology.

And we are not yet finished. Beyond the eastern seaboard, beyond the Midwest, and beyond the intermountain west, there is yet another west, again distinct and again a source of American civilization. This is my world, this is my civilization, and it is about as far west as one can go without stepping off the edge of the earth and into a new world, another world of water that is larger than any continent — larger than all the world’s continents taken together. Here on the far edge of the New World we have our own perspective on American civilization, to be sure falling within the main current of American civilization, but with its own distinctive features. For those of us who feel at home here, it is second nature to be perched on the edge of the Pacific Rim and to always know that, at the edge of the world, there is another world beyond.

This is my civilization: an outpost of industrial technology at the far edge of the New World.

This is my civilization: an outpost of industrial technology at the far edge of the New World.

Lucretius, in his De Rerum Natura, poetically interpreting Epicurus, argued for the infinity of the world and against even the very possibility of its finitude. One of the classic arguments that Lucretius reproduced is that if one goes to the edge of the universe and throws a spear, either the spear continues on or it is stopped. If it stops, what is it that stops it? And if the spear continues in its flight, into what does it continue? Well, some partisans of relativistic cosmology believe that they have an answer to this in that the world can be shown to be finite and unbounded. I do not count this as wrong, but it is a question-begging answer. If our three dimensional space is folded back on itself, it must be so folded in a four dimensional continuum, and so forth and so on, ad infinitum, world without end.

I took down the ideas for today's post while I was at the Cape Meares Lighthouse last Sunday, sitting at a picnic table with a view of the ocean.

I took down the ideas for today's post while I was at the Cape Meares Lighthouse last Sunday, sitting at a picnic table with a view of the ocean.

Here at the edge of the world we are always throwing a spear into the nothingness that lies beyond and trying to determine what happened. This too is part of the American character, and a perfect exemplification of intellectual curiosity and iconoclasm that drives the continuing development of North American civilization.

. . . . .

A trail to the edge of the world: only the Pacific lies beyond.

A trail to the edge of the world: only the Pacific lies beyond.

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One Response to “American Civilization”

  1. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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