Iterative Aspects of Industrial-Technological Civilization

26 September 2014


The Nike of Samothrace, now at the Louvre, is one of the high points of Western civilization. To behold this sculpture with your own eyes is to be humbled before an antiquity that could attain a vision virtually beyond us today.

The Nike of Samothrace, now at the Louvre, is one of the high points of Western civilization. To behold this sculpture with your own eyes is to be humbled before an antiquity that could attain a vision virtually beyond us today.

In some older posts I made a distinction between the iterative conception of civilization, which is a product of anonymization of production and the algorithmization of the world, and the heroic conception of civilization that celebrates singular achievement.

Industrial-technological civilization is an iterative civilization in so far as the STEM cycle that drives this civilization is repetitive, dependably producing scientific, industrial, and industrial innovation. From an iteration certain structures emerge. Civilization today regularly and repetitively produces scientific, technological, and industrial innovation in a way that is not unlike that in which earlier civilization, regularly and almost repetitively produced artistic masterpieces.

Just as agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization could not produce science, technology, and industry to rival industrial-technological civilization, so too industrial-technological civilization cannot produce artistic masterpieces to rival those of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. There is nothing from the modern world, for example, that can even approach the Nike of Samothrace. But to cite a single example is deceptive. It would be difficult to name any region of the world during any period of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization that did not produce artistic masterpieces of lasting value, just as it would be difficult to name any outpost of industrial-technological civilization that did not produce innovative science, technology, and industry.

Industrial-technological civilization is not without its heroic moments. The great, heroic undertaking of industrial-technological civilization to date — the Apollo moon landings — was a technical achievement, not without beauty, not without a visceral, human dimension, but remarkable primarily for its technological accomplishment. After the manner of heroic civilizational accomplishment, once the moon landings were attained, all further interest evaporated. To repeat them would be as pointless (from this perspective) as to mimic a great work of art, as, for example, an imitation of Homer or Dante, which would always and only be an imitation and never the authentic original.

The early futurists celebrated the aesthetic of industrial-technological civilization, as, for example, when Marinetti praised the beauty of a race car, trying (a bit too hard) to make the modern age sound heroic:

“We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath — a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, F. T. Marinetti, 1909

Marinetti explicitly confronts the aesthetic mastery of classical antiquity in order to explicitly reject it. Notice, however, that the motorcar celebrated by Marinetti is an article of mass production. An automobile is the embodiment of iteration, with factories churning out millions of identical units every year. And part of the culture of industrial-technological civilization has been the celebration of this kind of industrial production as a kind of heroism. This appeared not only in the adulation of early titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford, but also in communist bloc with the propagandistic celebration of Stackhanovite labor.

The distinction between iterative and heroic production is not the only relevant distinction to be made here. A civilization in the growth phase of its life cycle may grown iteratively or heroically. The civilization of classical antiquity grew iteratively, in a predictable and orderly manner, while medieval European civilization grew heroically, in fits and starts, though both exemplify agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. A further distinction can be made in the growth of a civilization between iterative growth, that is the repetition of a familiar model, and organic expansion, which is also iterative, but in which the model itself expands and each iteration is more comprehensive than the last. Industrial-technological civilization expands by the latter process.

Singular achievement not followed by iteration is an uncertain foundation on which to base the expansion of the civilization. More likely than not, a singular achievement will be followed by the dissolution of the legacy, as was the case with Ozymandias. But it is precisely this civilizational context that is likely to produce singular artistic masterpieces that stand alone as monuments of civilizations that ultimately could not sustain themselves — symbols of civilization, as it were, where the civilization itself lapses but the symbol remains. Industrial-technological expanding iteration incorporates occasional heroic moments, but it is the programmatic follow-through that has contributed to the relentless growth of industry, which has no parallel in human history. A civilization capable of sustaining itself comes at the cost of devaluing its own heroic moments and leaves no monuments other than derelict industries.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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