The Farther Reaches of Civilization

29 July 2011


A Discourse on Center and Periphery

In a posthumously published remark Wittgenstein mentioned “the main current of European and American civilization.” (I previously quoted this in my post American Civilization.) The remark is made is passing, in the context of highlighting Wittgenstein’s own feelings of alienation from this tradition, which he employs as a caution at the beginning of one of his posthumously published works, lest the unwary denizen of this main current of European or American civilization should crack its covers and find himself challenged by a fundamentally different perspective.

If civilization has a main stream, does it also have tributaries, shallows, bends, bayous, and parallels to all the hydrological structures of riparian environments?

This passage from Wittgenstein is interesting in several respects. It assumes that there is a main current of European and American civilization, and a main current implies that there is also a periphery to civilization that it not the main current — perhaps even distant sources of the main stream, tributaries, bayous, and other topographical features of the river of time (to continue with the implied metaphor of a “current” of civilization). I find this metaphor to be highly suggestive and even fruitful. Civilization is an historico-temporal phenomenon, so that any detailed articulation we can being to our historico-temporal understanding will likely result in a more fine-grained understanding of civilization. (We could, alternatively, say that civilization consists of temporal structures.)

The “river of time” is an ancient metaphor, and like all metaphors it has its uses and abuses. One of the signal sea changes in twentieth century philosophy on which I have remarked elsewhere but receives scant attention in the literature, is the nearly complete turn-around from philosophical rejection of the reality of time to a philosophical acceptance if not embrace of the reality of time. There were, however, holdouts, even in the analytical community, and some of these holdouts went so far as to deny that there is any such thing as the “flow” of time, which is pretty much the same thing as denying the metaphor of the river of time, which is pretty much the same thing as denying the temporal reality of historico-temporal phenomenon such as civilization. (Pretty much, but not exactly.)

I will here take the reality of time and of temporal phenomena as given, thus betraying both my naturalism and my acceptance of the contemporary philosophical consensus that time is real. I won’t bother to argue for this. While some metaphors may be more apt than others, and some metaphors more intuitively perspicuous than others, I don’t see that the “river of time” metaphor does any harm, and in so far as the metaphor can be extrapolated as suggested above, it may expand our conception of temporal phenomena such as civilization.

There is a sense in which a Wittgensteinian approach to civilization is both obvious and interesting. In his The Faith of a Heretic, Walter Kaufmann writes of the application of the later Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblances to words with complex meanings like “religion” and “civilization.” Subsequent philosophers have come to call such words “open textured,” and this applies to a great many common nouns. When we casually employ language in conversation such open-textured concepts cause little trouble, and especially so when there is a desire for mutual understanding. But when we attempt to make the open-textured concepts of ordinary language rigorous and precise we almost always run into trouble, and the contexts in which we attempt to precisify our concepts we usually cannot count on a desire to collaboratively converge upon meanings. (For this reason, among others, certain kinds of communication are possible among friends and family that are not possible with others — assuming that friends and family are sympathetic to us, which for some is a vertiginous leap.)

In any case, “civilization” would seem to be a paradigm case of an open-textured concept such that the instances that are taken to exemplify the meaning of the term display a family resemblance rather than all possessing a particular property by which all are definitively identified as being civilization. (That is to say, the legitimacy of an open-textured concept implies the rejection of essentialism for the concept in question.) Also, and as importantly, an open textured concept is open to revision. It can accommodate new permutations of meaning while abandoning old meanings. One way to revise the concept of civilization is to arrive at a more comprehensive conception by extrapolating Wittgenstein’s metaphor, and one way to do this is to leave the literalness of the metaphor aside, and instead of speaking of a mainstream of civilization and its implied branches off the main stream, to speak of the center and the periphery of civilization.

Civilization, to date, has meant those human undertakings on the surface of the earth that have included building cities, engaging in large-scale communal projects (such as agriculture and religious ceremonies), systematic application of intelligence to technology in order to solve problems, the maintenance and extension of social structures, and many other things. Because civilization is open-textured, we cannot exhaust its meanings, so we must be content with an incomplete list that simply gives a sense of what is involved in the enterprise.

Arnold Toynbee, author of A Study of History

The main stream of civilization to which Wittgenstein referred can be taken as the earliest, largest, core, and central efforts of this type. This is the center of civilization. The list of civilizations that Toynbee gives in his A Study of History — Egyptian, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumerian, Mayan, Indic, Hittite, Hellenic, Western, Orthodox Christian (Russia), Far Eastern (Japan), Orthodox Christian (main body), Far Eastern (main body), Persian, Arabic, Hindu, Mexican, Yucatec, and Babylonic — constitutes a temporal-historical list of examples; the list of civilizations given by Samuel Huntington in his The Clash of Civilizations — Western, Latin, Japanese, Sinic, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, African — constitutes a spatio-structural list of examples. Both of these attempts at giving a comprehensive catalog of actual civilizations are imperfect and inadequate, but the intersection of both might give as a rough spatio-temporal catalog of the centers of civilization.

Samuel Huntington

The idea of the center of civilization is at once both vague and intuitive, making it difficult to precisify, but the rewards of precisification are all the greater given the potential of the concept. But we must honestly concede that the idea of civilization itself is none-too-clear, and even thinkers who worked on the idea for their entire careers, such as Toynbee and Huntington mentioned above, have done little more than point to examples — what philosophers call an “ostensive definition” — since a logical or formal characterization of civilization seems to be beyond the present conceptual infrastructure of the social sciences. But difficult as the task of formulating and formalizing the concept of a center of a civilization may be, we can gain a little bit of analytical clarity by contrasting the center of civilization with the periphery of civilization, and such an analysis has already been suggested.

The simplest model of center and periphery.

I have previously criticized the terminology of Thomas P. M. Barnett that employs the locution “credentializing.” While Mr. Barnett took the trouble to explain himself after my criticism (which clarification I have posted in Credentializing Clarified), I still find this term in particular (viz. credentializing) to lack intuitive perspicuity. However, Barnett’s influential text The Pentagon’s New Map, with its distinction between core states and gap states, is highly intuitively perspicuous, and it moreover is an exposition of the world in terms of center and periphery. (Huntington, cited above, divided the clashes between civilizations into fault line conflicts and core state conflicts, which also is a form of center/periphery distinction. I don’t know enough about Barnett’s position to know whether he was influenced in this respect by Huntington.)

A more realistic model of multiple centers and overlapping peripheries. Beyond this spatial model, one ought also to imagine multiple centers and overlapping peripheries in time.

The strategic logic of center and periphery is more fundamental than, and therefore underlies, the culture, social milieu, or civilizational context, and so we find in it a cross-cultural mode of analysis that is found in works antithetical not only to the “Washington Consensus” but even to western civilization. For example, we find this exposition of center and periphery in Abu Bakr Naji’s The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass:

“The two superpowers which used to dominate the global order controlled it through their centralized power. The meaning of “centralized power” here is: The overwhelming military power which extends from the center in order to control the areas of land that submit to each superpower, beginning from the center and reaching the utmost extremity of these lands. Submission, in its primary, simplest form, means that these lands owe the center loyalty, submission to its judgment, and responsibility for its interests.”

The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass, Abu Bakr Naji, Translated by William McCants, translation supported by the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University

And again a few pages later, in comparing relative Russian and American proximity to Afghanistan and adjacent lands:

“The matter is different with regard to America — the remoteness of the primary center from the peripheries should help the Americans understand the difficulty of our continued submission to them, their control over us, and their pillaging of our resources if we decide to refuse; but only if we refuse and enflame opposition to its materialization.”

Part of Naji’s argument is that the nature of power, and the nature of power projection, on the periphery is distinct from the nature of power and power projection close to the center. I find Naji’s position close to my own in terms of his analysis, and if we change the specific terms of Naji’s analysis it can be seen as an alternative formulation of Barnett’s gaps (as mentioned above) and George Friedman’s borderlands (as mentioned immediately below).

Another use of the strategic logic of center and periphery is to be found in George Friedman’s discussion of borderlands. I have previously visited this in Moral Borderlands where I quoted Friedman’s The Next 100 Years as follows:

“Between two neighboring countries, there is frequently an area that has, over time, passed back and forth between them. It is an area of mixed nationalities and cultures… It has a unique mixed culture and individuals with different national loyalties… But regardless of who controls it at any given time, it is a borderland, with two cultures and an underlying tension. The world is filled with borderlands.”

If we expand and extrapolate this that Friedman attributes to countries to also include multi-state entities, ethnicities, social systems, cultures, and civilizations, then his borderlands are approximately similar to Barnett’s unstable gaps between core regions.

There is a tendency today to minimize the distinction between center and periphery because of instantaneous global communications and nearly instantaneous global travel. (I considered the social changes wrought by ease of global travel in The Space Age and Addendum to “The Space Age”.) Indeed, there is a sense in which expanding globalization is the neutralization (if not the negation) of the center/periphery dialectic that runs like a thread through human affairs from the earliest empires of west Asia to the great confrontation of the two superpowers that dominated the second half of the twentieth century, with the stability at the center and its proxy wars at the periphery.

If (and I stress if) globalization is conceived as the elimination of dialectic of center and periphery, as the closing of Barnett’s gaps and the consolidation of the functioning core, or the elimination of Friedman’s borderlands, while these developments may be approximated, they will never be fully consolidated. In this sense, and I mean in this sense narrowly conceived, globalization will either falter in some phase of its unfolding, or the same dialectic of center and periphery will be extrapolated as human civilization extends beyond the surface of the earth and the periphery is to be found in marginal communities established far from the center on a new scale of distance that outstrips that possible upon the surface of the earth, and therefore exhibits the dialectic in an even more stark form (which I have called extraterrestrialization).

Civilizational centers migrate over time, albeit slowly, almost too incrementally to notice. During classical antiquity, Western civilization was centered on the Mediterranean; during the medieval period, Western civilization was centered in Western Europe; with the discoveries of the Americas there is a sense in which Western civilization has been centered on the Atlantic. Islamic civilization has similarly shifted gradually during its history. During the medieval period Islamic Spain became sufficiently wealthy and influential that Cordoba virtually represented a second center of Islamic civilization, so that the tradition seemed to bud another iteration of itself in a very different land than that of its birth.

In Human Nature and the Human Condition I argued that the apparent fixity of human nature was due to human nature being shaped by the human condition, and the human condition changes, albeit very slowly. Civilizational change, along with the migration of the center of a civilization and the redefinition of a barbarous periphery, is part of this incremental shifting of center and periphery. Thus the main stream of Western civilization to which Wittgenstein referred in the quote that opens this post, is, like any great river, an ancient stream that has changed its bed many times as both the geology underlying the river has shifted and the inhabitants who have lived along its banks have changed their habits and domiciles over time.

While the periphery may be barbarous and not fully civilized, as well as being far from the center of things by definition, that does not mean that the periphery is not important. In many cases, the fate of the center of a civilization is determined by what occurs in and at the periphery of civilization. Certainly this was the case with the later Roman Empire. As the Roman Empire grew the periphery was forced farther and farther outward in the grand strategic ambition to secure the center from incursion and instability, as well as to keep tribute and booty flowing inward from the periphery to the center. Eventually the fate of the Empire was sealed as barbarians on the periphery, attracted by the wealth, luxury, and comfort of Mediterranean civilization, pushed inward toward the center and eventually themselves took control of the center.

When the barbarians took control of the center of Western civilization and thereby in one fell swoop (a swoop that took centuries to consolidate) brought the periphery into the center, the center was then no longer the center and the whole of Western civilization was topsy-turvy for a few hundred years. This was formerly called the “Dark Ages,” but historians no longer use this term as it implies a valuation that seems out of place in objective historiography, though the term is often justly applied. (I previously wrote about civilizational dark ages in The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited.) It took hundreds of years for Western civilization to turn itself inside-out and in the process transition its center roughly from Rome to Paris, making the Mediterranean, once the center of civilization, into the periphery.

There is a close parallel between the frontier, as conceived in Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” and the periphery, or borderlands (or gaps). We could, in fact, speak in terms of the significance of the periphery in American history, and as soon as we do so we realize that, while the center is the focus of civilization, the periphery can be crucial to the development of a civilization. In this case, the Turner Thesis becomes the thesis that the periphery was of central importance in the development of American civilization, which latter Wittgenstein had called the “main stream” of civilization.

There are things that are possible at the center that are not possible on the periphery, and there are things that are possible on the periphery that are not possible at the center. This complementary facilitation is parallel to complementary obstacles: there are particular conditions for accomplishing anything at the center, and different conditions for accomplishing anything one the periphery. For example, at the center you need to the cooperation of the wealthy, the well-connected, the influential, the powerful, and the like. Without them, you accomplish nothing. On the periphery, on the other hand, you have a much freer hand in terms of those with whom you work, but the resources to which you have access will be correspondingly slight. At the periphery, infrastructure is thin on the ground or non-existent. If you want to try something controversial, this is the place to try your proof of concept.

Because of the complementary possibilities and obstacles of center and periphery, a large civilizational undertaking may require the agents of that civilization to pass back and forth between center and periphery in order to secure the resources necessary from the center and remove them to the periphery to accomplish in relative autonomy and seclusion that which cannot be easily accomplished in the center. The Manhattan Project drew the best minds from the centers of academic world, but it placed them in the isolation of the New Mexican desert. And while the focus of the Manhattan Project has been the design and testing center in New Mexico, the fissionable materials were created in the isolation of eastern Washington state at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

On a larger scale, it could be argued that the vitality of American civilization has been at least in part a consequence of the ongoing dialectic between center and periphery made possible by the unification, in one nation-state, of a industrially developed center along the eastern seaboard and the wilderness of the frontier in the interior of the North American continent. For the most part, these conditions were lacking in South America. The closest approximation was Argentina in the nineteenth century, which at that time was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and Brazil, which is today rapidly improving its fortunes as its people exploit the possibilities created by the vast Amazonian interior and the enormous and wealthy cities on the coast.

Similar considerations — a dialectic of wealthy cities connected to the outside world and vast, nearly empty interior wildernesses — hold for China and Russia, except that Russia has no major ocean coastline, though it does have St. Petersburg on the Baltic. In China, the balance is tilted toward the center (the large and wealthy coastal cities), while in Russia the balance is tilted toward the periphery (the vast spaces of the Russian interior and Siberia, lacking the counterweight of cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Qingdao).

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PS: This post has been in gestation longer than anything else I have made available here, since I began it just over two years ago. Thus these are perennial issues that I have had in mind for some time. Though I have been thinking about these ideas for some time, my thoughts still lack focus, but I wanted to at least sketch the idea in order to have the material available for further development.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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