Civilization: Recovery, Reconstitution, and Reconstruction
31 December 2015
As an addendum to my On the Longevity of Submerged Civilizations I am going to here lay out some terminological conventions that I will observe in future discussions of civilization, and especially in relation to submerged, suboptimal, lapsed, or otherwise failed civilizations. I am calling these “terminological conventions” because the science of civilization is yet in its nascent state, and not only will others use these terms differently, but the concepts for which the terms are here used are unfamiliar and will not be generally recognized.
In particular, I will try to describe the difference between the recovery of a civilization, the reconstitution of a civilization, and the reconstruction of a civilization. In the concluding remarks below we will see how these concepts are related to the existential status of a given civilization, and how each is related to the other by incremental gradations.
The term “recovery,” as in “recovered civilization,” I will use to describe the full restoration of a civilization that has been submerged or otherwise in abeyance for a period of time, but has never fully failed or been entirely extirpated, which upon its recovery returns the civilization to active participation in history in actual fact, and primarily for the peoples who were the original source of the civilization. (It might also be interesting to consider the possibility of the recovery of endemic civilizations for non-endemic populations.)
There are several problematic instances of recovery; it is difficult to point to an unambiguous example that captures the concept in its strongest form. I previously cited the partial recovery of Mayan civilization as the Mayan peoples of Mesoamerican, who have kept alive the spoken language and many of the cultural traditions of ancient Maya civilization, having now been given the written language and the history of Mayan civilization through the resources of scientific archaeology, as an instance of long-term submergence and recovery. The reader could formulate the objections to this as easily as I could. There is also the example of colonialized civilizations in Africa and Asia. One could argue that colonization isn’t a submergence as much as it is a temporary bureaucratic overlay of the colonizing civilization.
The re-assertion of the rights of indigenous peoples, once dismissed as savages possessing no civilization, could be understood as the first stages in the recovery of a range of traditional civilizations that nearly vanished under the unstoppable tide of modernism and industrialism. Industrialization occurred so rapidly in many parts of the world that traditional civilizations had no time to gradually fade, but appeared to be catastrophically swept away. In at least some cases, rather than being swept away these traditional civilizations were submerged, and some of these submerged civilizations may experience a limited recovery.
The term “reconstitution,” as in “reconstituted civilization,” I will use to describe the attempt to completely recreate in actual fact a vanished civilization of the past that has completely lapsed and no longer exists even in submerged form. In the case of reconstitution, a civilization has passed the point of possible recovery (in the sense used above) and must be counted as having failed decisively. A reconstituted civilization is a civilization brought back from the dead. Little reflection is needed to see that there are many interesting problems involved in this concept, first of all whether it is even possible.
I do not know of a single example of a reconstituted civilization, or even of a single thorough-going attempt to reconstitute any civilization. The idea is included here for the sake of completeness, and because I intend to develop this idea in much greater detail in the future. I have a lot of notes on the reconstitution of civilization that I hope to turn into a paper or into a long blog post. The idea is particularly relevant for the future of terrestrial life and civilization in the cosmos. Of the short list of possible strategies for interstellar expansion without spacecraft capable of relativistic speeds, along with robotic probes (“Bracewell probes”) and generation ships, there is the possibility of reconstitution. That is to say, a spacecraft could be sent to a distant world without any living beings other than frozen or otherwise preserved cells, and upon arrival at the destination terrestrial life would be reconstituted. The accounts of such missions usually fail to note that not only must human beings and their food sources be reconstituted, but their civilization must also be reconstituted.
If such a spacecraft took tens of thousands of years to reach its destination, the source civilization would almost certainly have lapsed, so that the reconstitution of the civilization would be a “classic” reconstitution scenario of a failed civilization. However, there are some very interesting insights that can be derived from treating this mission structure as a thought experiment. It would be entirely possible to reconstitute a civilization at a distance while the original civilization was still in existence. However, the reconstitution would be of an earlier stage of the civilization of source, so that the civilization of source will have presumably continued in its development, and perhaps it will even have evolved into some other kind of civilization, so that the reconstitution of an earlier state of that civilization still represents the reconstitution of a now-vanished civilization.
Another possible consequence is that a civilization that produces such a mission may have failed at its source, but is reconstituted at a new location, and in this sense lives again and is no longer a failed civilization. If this process is iterated, one can imagine a series of reconstituted civilizations, each reproducing the original civilization of source, and doing so ad infinitum, so that new iterations of this civilization are always appearing somewhere in the universe — perhaps even multiple representatives at any one time — so that this civilization continues to produce copies of itself. Of such a civilization, even if every individual instance ultimately and eventually fails, it could be said that the civilization on the whole could continue in this way indefinitely, and must then be accounted the most successful of civilizations, in so far as it never entirely goes extinct. It would be a reasonable question in this context to ask whether the mission was a method for the reconstitution of the civilization, or whether the civilization was a method for the reconstitution of the mission (and I hope that the reader will understand the relevance of this to Richard Dawkins’ conception of the “selfish gene”).
The term “reconstruction,” as in “reconstructed civilization,” I will use to describe the scientific delineation of a vanished civilization of the past, pursued for scientific purposes, i.e., pursued for the sake of scientific knowledge and understanding. As with reconstitution, reconstruction concerns failed civilizations that are beyond the possibility of recovery. However, instead of seeking to revivify a failed civilization, a reconstructed civilization is an intellectual exercise in understanding and does not, generally speaking, seek to bring back a failed civilization.
This is a fairly conventional sense of “reconstruction” as employed by historians and archaeologists in the study of past civilizations. Archaeologists do not concern themselves with the recovery of submerged civilizations or the reconstitution of failed civilizations; their concern is the assemble all available evidence concerning a civilization of the past and to bring that civilization alive again in the mind the scholar, and not in actual fact. However, there are extensions of historiography and archaeology that do involve a limited reconstruction in actual fact, as in experimental archaeology and historical reenactment, which will be considered further below in the concluding remarks.
A civilization might be definitively and decisively brought to a sudden end by a catastrophe of sufficient magnitude, but civilization-ending catastrophes are uncommon (there is the possibility that Minoan civilization was brought to an end by the Thera eruption), while much more common are civilizations that yield slowly to the ravages of time — so slowly that it may be extremely difficult to choose even a symbolic date for the termination of a civilization. The lingering of decaying civilizations results in several ambiguities in the recovery, reconstitution, and reconstruction of civilizations.
In the definitions above of recovery, reconstitution, and reconstruction the distinction is made between civilizations living and dead, but this distinction, crucial to the definitions, is by no means absolute. As implied in my post on the longevity of submerged civilizations, a civilization might lie dormant in submergence only to be later brought out of dormancy. But how long can this dormant period in submergence go on? One can readily see that the longer a civilization is held in abeyance by adverse circumstances, the more is lost. At some point (and this involves a sorites paradox) a submerged civilization becomes unrecoverable. But it would be unlikely that this transition is a matter of a black-or-white distinction. There is probably an extended period of time during which a civilization is partially recoverable, so that the resultant civilization is part recovery and part reconstitution.
The incremental gradation between civilizations living and dead introduces an incremental gradation between recovery and reconstitution, which are distinguished by the attempt to return to life a submerged civilization and a lapsed civilization, respectively. There is also a gray area between reconstitution and reconstruction. Archaeological reconstructions of vanished civilizations of the past may involve experimental archaeology, which is, in effect, a strictly limited form of the reconstitution of a civilization. Open air museums, such as I described in The Technology of Living, sometimes have working farms with individuals living the historical roles (at least part-time) required for this kind of experimental archaeology. This is generally called historical reenactment, which is also used to describe the reenactment of particular historical battles, or even the reenactment of particular forms of combat, outside the context of a particular battle. The latter is the case with the reenactment of medieval combat, which I discussed in Falling in Love with Medieval Armed Combat.
The project of attempting to recover a submerged civilization may seek the resources of scientific historiography and archaeology in order to better understand those elements of a submerged civilization that have suffered the greatest degradation over time, so that even between recovery and reconstruction there are graded degrees of separation that may be more or less close or distant. A scientific reconstruction of a civilization may be undertaken in the purest expression of disinterested knowledge, or it may be undertaken with the ulterior motive of the reconstruction being useful to the recovery of a civilization understood as a political project. Politically motivated historiography and archaeology are relatively commonplace in a scientific civilization still captive to nationalism and ethnocentrism, which is the reality of the world we live in today.
What I have written here in regard to civilization may be equally well applied to any of that cohort of emergent complexity we know from Earth: geology, biology, intelligence, technology. The more we focus on the natural history end of this continuum the more difficult it may be to see the applicability of recovery, reconstitution, and reconstruction to geology, for example, though in the distant future we may possess the technological agency to reconstitute worlds in various stages of development. Indeed, one can imagine virtual reconstitutions in computer simulations as being nearly within our present technological ability. With human artifacts like technology it is a bit easier to imagine the parallels of technological recovery, technological reconstitution, and technological reconstruction.
Also, what I have written here in regard to vanished civilizations of the past may be extrapolated to nascent civilizations of the future. In Experimental Archaeology of the Future and Portraying the Future: ‘Historical Pre-Enactment’ I discussed displacing experimental archaeology and historical reenactment into the future. In so far as these are tools of reconstruction, and in so far as reconstruction in related to recovery (as a project of politicized science) and reconstitution (as also being concerned with definitively failed civilizations), there may be a way to formulate the above concepts in a way that is as relevant to the future of civilization as to the past of civilization. I have not yet attempted this formulation, but will save this as an inquiry for a future time.
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