Saturday


apples and oranges

To compare medieval civilization and industrial civilization may be a bit like comparing apples and oranges, since the two ideas come from two different civilizational periodizations based on different ideas of organizing our thought about civilization. The idea of medieval civilization derives from the familiar Western scheme of periodizing civilization into ancient, medieval and modern, while the idea of industrial civilization derives from the more recent tripartite periodization of human history in hunter-gatherer nomadism, agrarian civilization, and industrial civilization.

Medieval civilization is in some respects more alien to us, and more distant from us, than classical antiquity.

Medieval civilization is in some respects more alien to us, and more distant from us, than classical antiquity.

Nevertheless, I think that there is something to be learned from comparison and contrast even across incommensurable paradigms, if not especially across incommensurable paradigms. From a philosophical point of view, there is nothing more interesting that comparing distinct ontologies, which is to say, comparing the different ways that different philosophers divide up one and the same world into ultimate constituents — or, to appeal to two different images used by contemporary philosophers: 1) comparing two different inventories of the ultimate furniture of the universe, or 2) comparing two different ways of carving nature at the joints. Medieval and industrial civilization represent two distinct ways of carving civilization at the joints.

The individual often finds himself alienated from his own role in industrialized civilization, notwithstanding the fact that this civilization has shaped us.

The individual often finds himself alienated from his own role in industrialized civilization, notwithstanding the fact that this civilization has shaped us.

I often appeal to examples and parallels drawn from medieval civilization, because medieval civilization has a special didactic value: with medieval civilization we have an instance of a particular species of civilization that emerged within historical times, flourished, and then vanished, so that the whole of the process was documented and the story of this civilization itself is a completed narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

wat-tyler

When we think of our own industrialized civilization as a whole — and while I think of it like this all the time, this is atypical, because most people don’t notice their own civilization any more than the air they breathe — we tend to think of it as a phenomenon at or near its full developmental potential. The persistent apocalypticism and declensionism of our times encourages us in this view, because it suggests that our civilization has reached its peak and has no where to go but down. This is a mistake. Some day we will be able to say of industrial-technological civilization that it had a beginning, a middle, and an end and achieved narrative closure in this way. At present, however, industrialized civilization is a work in progress. We do not yet know what it will look like from a distance, as it were, when we (or others) are able to bear witness not only to its rise and greatness, but also to its decline and fall.

When Satan tempted Christ will all the kingdoms of the world, the devil attempted to show the whole of agrarian civilization from the top of a high mountain.

When Satan tempted Christ will all the kingdoms of the world, the devil attempted to show the whole of agrarian civilization from the top of a high mountain.

What I would like to suggest is that we do not yet even know what industrial-technological civilization will look like at its height, much less its maturity, because we are still in the formative stages of our civilization, such as it is. The industrial revolution, beginning a little more than two hundred years ago, has still to transform all the world. It is steadily working toward this transformation, and we can see the signs of this transformation everywhere, but we can also see that this transformation is far from complete.

industrial technological civilization

I have argued in The Industrial-Technological Thesis (and argued the underside of the same in Industrial-Technological Disruption) that the civilization now being constituted is uniquely characterized by the spiraling feedback of science, technology, and engineering. I tried to refine how this escalating cycle of feedback came into existence in The Human Condition Made Rigorous, and I tried to show how this cycle can fail or be interrupted in Industrial-Technological Disruption.

industrial technological civilization destructive cycle

If I am right about our civilization being uniquely characterized by this spiral of advancing science, technology, and engineering, industrialized civilization will always be changing and never reach a point of equilibrium. This would make it problematic to identify any particular point of height or maturity for this civilization, but we can take a different perspective by understanding the consolidation (and therefore, in a sense, the maturity) of industrial-technological civilization to have come about when the world entire exemplifies this form of civilization. I suggested in The Re-Proletarianization of the Workforce that it is only at this point of industrial maturity that Marx’s predictions can be judged to be true or failed.

The crusades were an unprecedented exercise in power projection at a time in history when geographical obstacles were not easily overcome by technology.

The crusades were an unprecedented exercise in power projection at a time in history when geographical obstacles were not easily overcome by technology.

To return to the example of medieval civilization, if an individual today is familiar with medieval civilization at all, they are likely to be familiar only with the later stages of medieval civilization, unless they appeal to a semi-mythical Arthurian England (or its equivalents elsewhere in Europe). Except for scholars in medieval history, little is known of early medieval history. If one begins to become aware of medieval history with the crusades, moving on to the construction of the great cathedrals, the formulation of the scholastic intellectual synthesis, the Black Death, and then the gradual unwinding of medieval institutions under the pressure of emerging modernity (really, modernism without industrialism), one is beginning with a civilization already more at less at its height, having reached a point of internal development that it turns to projecting its power outward into the wider world.

Prior to the crusades, medieval civilization had at least five hundred years of development to bring itself to a point of development at which it possessed the resources to engage in the crusades, which not only involved a lot of second sons looking for glory (and loot), but also arms and armor, shipping, foodstuffs, and the maintenance of institutions in the absence of significant military assets. It is, of course, controversial to fix a particular date for the beginning of medievalism, but somewhere between, say, the 400s to the 500s AD, Roman imperial power collapsed in Western Europe and was replaced by local regimes and a local way of life focused on the land, not on trade or industry.

As I said, it is inherently controversial to name a date at which medieval civilization begins, but even if we fix that beginning at any of the later dates that are sometimes used, the medieval world developed for hundreds of years before it reached its maturity, and it is only in its maturity that those of us who are not medieval scholars begin to become aware of medieval history. In other words, the whole of industrial-technological civilization, as it has existed so far, occupies less than half of the time that was needed for medieval civilization to come to maturity.

Although history now proceeds at a blistering pace, the potential scope of a civilization is much larger. Medieval civilization took almost five hundred years to consolidate itself in the Western European peninsula. Despite the rapidity of history in the industrial age, we can see with our own eyes that a little over two hundred years of development have sufficed to bring industrialized civilization to much of the world, but not yet all of the world, and as we make this observation it is intuitively obvious (as much as anything in history can be said to be intuitively obvious) that global consolidation is the inevitable telos of industrialism. Our civilization is more dynamic and faster moving, but it has much more ground to cover before it could be said to have achieved its natural teleology.

In the far future, when our distant progeny can see industrial-technological civilziation synoptically, as a whole, I think it will be clear that, two hundred years into the process of industrialization, that process is still far from complete, and the civilzation that will issue from this process is still far from reaching its mature form and attaining the heights of its development.

In some earlier posts I have already alluded to this. In Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that industrial society had passed through two paradigms of social organization and was more-or-less groping its way to a third paradigm of social organization. Industrial society may ultimately have to pass through many stages of social paradigmata before it arrives at a form of social organization that is in consonance with the institutions of industrialized society.

In The Next Axial Age I suggested that each macro-historical division of civilization may come to maturity in an axial age, that the Axial Age identified by Karl Jaspers was but the Axial Age of Agrarian civilization, and that industrialized civilization may yet be hundreds of years from its axial moment.

The absence of adequate social institutions and of an axialization period clearly points to industrial-technological civilization being yet in its formative stages.

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Friday


The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are one of the great surviving relics of medieval civilization.

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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Saturday


The theater of Marcellus as depicted by Giovanni Battista Piranesi in the early modern period illustrates how later civilizations grow in, through, around and on top of earlier civilizations.

From the perspective of the phenomenon of civilization, i.e., civilization understood at its furthest reach of generality (which might also be called a meta-civilizational perspective), one would expect to find not only patterns of development of civilizations, as was Toynbee’s project to identify, but one would also expect to find patterns by which one civilization gives way to, or is transformed by or into, another civilization. In other words, a big picture perspective on civilization would reveal both intra-civilizational structures and inter-civilizational structures. Both of these are structures in time — ways in which things change.

Diocletian’s Palace at Split is another wonderful example of how a later civilization will grow like weeds within the interstices of an earlier civilization, displacing what came before but also preserving it — what Hegel called aufheben.

Civilizations, like individuals, swim in the ocean of history, and we can say of civilization what Marx said of men, viz. that civilizations make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. Each civilization is heir to the history that preceded it, and is in turn the ancestor of each civilization and succeeds it.

In several posts I have discussed the work of Toynbee, not least because he is the most devoted to the idea of civilization as the proper object of study of historiographic inquiry. Toynbee’s focus on civilization means that, even when he gets things wrong, he usually has something interesting to say. Apart from the list of fully developed civilizations that Toynbee recognized, he also discussed abortive civilizations and arrested civilizations. Among the abortive civilizations he included the Celtic Fringe of early Christianity and the Viking world. Among arrested civilizations he included the Eskimo, Polynesians, and nomads of the Asiatic steppe.

In Why We Are All Eskimos I tried to show how Toynbee was wrong to call Eskimos an arrested civilization. Obviously, when Toynbee made this claim, he was thinking that civilizations began in temperate regions and spread from areas more friendly to the full development of civilization to regions less friendly to the development of fully developed civilizations. Toynbee did not know what we know now in terms of the detailed paleoclimatology of the Earth. Scientific historiography since Toynbee’s time has revealed to us new worlds of knowledge that are not derived from any text, unless we count the world itself as a text, and our genetic structure as well.

Toynbee had it exactly backward with the Eskimos: they are not an arrested side branch of the main stream of civilization; they are the robust channel flowing inexorably from past glaciations, as though swollen with the meltwater of an entire ice age. “Eskimos” broadly speaking are the ancestors of us all, because all human ancestors had to come through the test of the ice age in order for them to be present to found the civilizations that have flourished during the present interglacial period.

I am beginning to think that Toynbee also had modern Western civilization exactly backward also. Toynbee begins his examination of civilizations by taking as examples of civilization, “…twenty-one societies of the species to which our Western Society belongs.” (A Study of History, Vol. 1, I, C, III, a, p. 147) Toynbee is honest about the fact of beginning with his own civilization, but I think that there is a legitimate question here as to whether our civilization today is modern civilization in the strict and narrow sense, or whether our civilization is a successor civilization to that of modernity. Let me try to explain this.

There is a sense which modern civilization has triumphed, especially in its Western form, but there is another sense in which modernity proved to be abortive, and we can speak of an abortive modern civilization that never fulfilled its promise because it was overtaken by events. What I mean is that modern civilization taken in its strict and narrow sense was displaced by another kind of civilization while modernity was still in its developmental stage. What displaced modern civilization was industrial-technological civilization, which is sufficiently different from what was developing as modernity prior to industrialization that it may deserve to be considered another kind of civilization entirely.

Some time ago, when I wrote a few posts on early modern Europe, particular in reference to Christopher Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down, I received a comment from Christopher Thompson, who had been a student of Christopher Hill. Professor Thompson scolded me for suggesting that early modern English was not, “a ‘peasant society’ or even a predominantly peasant one.” He was right to call me on this. It is worthwhile to read in its entirety Professor Thompson’s comment on my post (follow the link above and go to the bottom of the page), since he summarized in a few sentences the complexity and diversity of early modern English society.

In a later post of mine, Modernism without Industrialism: Europe 1500-1800, I tried to sketch the peculiar civilization of Europe of the early modern period, which I have come more and more to see as a kind of civilization that was only just getting off the ground when it was overtaken by the violent transformation of society initiated by the Industrial Revolution.

This period of modernism without industrialism can be understood as an abortive form of modern civilization — a civilization cut short and which never attain maturity on its own terms. As Professor Thompson pointed out, this was not a predominantly peasant society; in other words, it was not a medieval society. Throughout the early modern period we see a very gradually increasing division of labor and the social differentiation that this implies. The elaborate feudal structures of carefully gradated hierarchy was being slowly replaced by another kind of social gradation not as explicitly hierarchical as that of the Middle Ages. The scientific revolution was making itself felt, literacy was becoming more widespread, and at the end of this period we have two great political revolutions — the American Revolution and the French Revolution — both of which can be understood in isolation from the first stirrings of industrialization, which were starting about the same time.

It is possible to imagine, as an exercise in counter-factual historiography, a world that might have followed from the combined effects of the scientific revolution and the American and French revolutions but without the industrial revolution. While we are at it, we can just as well attempt to imagine a world that might have followed from modernity, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution without the political revolutions or the industrial revolution. I think this would have been a civilization much more similar to that of the Roman Empire at its height — relatively wealthy, cosmopolitan, internationalist, essentially agrarian and rural despite the existence of a few very large cities — than what we now know as industrial-technological civilization.

If we can identify modernity as an abortive civilization, like the Christian Celtic Fringe and the Vikings (according to Toynbee), overtaken by industrial-technological civilization, we must acknowledge that the transition from one civilization to another was relatively seamless, despite the social upheavals that attended industrialization. There was no “dark age” between modernity and industrialization, and in this respect the transition from modernity to industrialization resembles the transition from medievalism to modernity. Again, there was no “dark age” between medieval and modern civilization, but there was a transition nevertheless.

It has often been remarked that the modern world is continuous with the medieval world in several important ways, even while there is little in history that has been as completely abandoned as medieval civilization and its institutions. I would like to suggest that, when one civilization more-or-less seamlessly gives way to another civilization, without an intervening dark age or similar massive disruption of institutions, what is happening is that the ordinary business of life, the accidents of life (in the Aristotelian sense of “accident”), go on uninterrupted — which is to say that they evolve gradually so that very little change is noticed from one generation to the next, but that these gradual changes in the ordinary business of life accumulate and eventually add up as significant social change. At the same time that the accidents of life are undergoing gradual change, the essence of a civilization is undergoing relatively rapid change, so that the more-or-less identical practices passed from one generation to the next have a very different meaning because they are now accidents of a different essential nature.

Given the continuity of the medieval and modern worlds, how do we know that one civilization gave way to another? Well, one indicator species of the climax civilizational ecosystem of medievalism was the cathedral. Monumental architecture often serves as an indicator species of climax civilizational ecosystems. What the pyramids were to the Egyptians, what temples and baths were to classical antiquity, and what the skyscraper is to industrial-technological civilization, the cathedral (and the palace) was to medieval civilization.

Hans Memling, St Ursula Shrine: Arrival in Cologne (scene 1), ca. 1489, Oil on panel, 35 x 25,3 cm., Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges, Belgium.

Once medieval European civilization reached a given level of stability and wealth, cathedrals went up rather quickly, sometimes in a single generation. Some magnificent palaces were erected on a time scale not at all unlike monumentral architecture in our time, say 5-10 years — easily within the lifetime of a single master builder. Some monumental projects stalled, however, and once stalled they tended to remain stalled, sometimes for hundreds of years. A good example of this would be the Cologne cathedral, which was an enormous undertaking, and when it was abandoned the civilization that began it essentially lost interest in it. Abandoned in its unfinished state, the construction crane on top of the south tower became iconic in its own right, appearing in depictions of Cologne throughout the intervening centuries.

This detail from the above Hans Memling painting shows the construction of Cologne cathedral already abandoned in 1489 (work had ceased in 1473); the cathedral was to remain in this unfinished form until construction was resumed in 1842.

Cologne cathedral was eventually completed, but it was not completed by medieval civilization. Medieval civilization was utterly extirpated by the time that the cathedral was completed by different men with a different agenda. During the nineteenth century there was a vogue for medievalism that is called “neo-gothic,” and during this time there were a few cities, Cologne among them, who dusted off the unfinished medieval plans to their cathedrals and decided to finish them. The Houses of Parliament in London date from the same period, and are a classic example of neo-gothic architecture. But the monumental rock-cut tombs of Lycia, along the Turkish coast, many of which were abandoned unfinished, were not completed by later civilizations that displaced the classical antiquity in which these monumental projects were initiated. Perhaps too much had changed, too much time had elapsed between the phases of surplus wealth of the dominant regional civilization, and probably also it was the non-continuous transition between civilizations.

A photograph of the unfinished Cologne cathedral in 1856, from Köln in frühen Photographien 1847-1914, Schirmer/Mosel Verlag, München, 1988. The medieval construction crane is still visible on the south tower.

Thus when we see industrial-technological civilization completing the work of modernism, we ought not to assume that this is one and the same civilization; if industrial-technological civilization is essentially different from that of modernity prior to with without industrialization, then the choice to continue and complete the monumental projects of modernity can be understood as an exercise in inter-generational piety — rather than worshiping our immediate ancestors, we continue and complete their projects, even if these projects mean something very different to us than the projects meant for them.

If we make the distinction between the essence and accident of civilized life as I have tried to do above, I think we come to a better appreciation both of the temporal structures of intra-civilizational change and the temporal structures of inter-civilizational change. Intra-civilizational change is marked by essential continuity and accidental discontinuity; inter-civilizational change is marked by essential discontinuity and accidental continuity.

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