There is a truly noxious moment in Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC documentary series Civilisation. The art historian, knight, and life-peer stands across the Seine from Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral and ponders the meaning of the series title.
“What is civilization?” he asks before peering over his shoulder. “I don’t know, but I think I can recognize it when I see it.”
It isn’t roads or agriculture that define Clark’s civilization, not plumbing or shelter, modes of production or complex systems of governance. Not even the grand buttresses and spires he is obviously referencing as he glances across the river.
Just “I can recognise it when I see it.” Almost the exact same phrase used by a US Supreme Court Justice to describe pornography five years before. “I know it when I see it.” The definition is in the definition.
“I know it when I see it.” The refrain of the charlatan. Of they who believe that their level of education is its own argument, regardless of how much attention they may or may not have paid during class. Everyone who has ever been in a position of unchecked power has their variation of it.
It was fitting that Lawrence O’Donnell included Clark’s words in the closing segment of his MSNBC show on the night of the Notre-Dame fire. It was followed by an assertion from French President Emanuel Macron (he who has spent the past five months trying unsuccessfully to quell a full-on insurgency in his own country) vowing to rebuild. The message is clear: Notre-Dame is a symbol of this great thing we call civilization, and civilization must be maintained.
Which begs the question: how the fuck do you rebuild something you can only know when you see? How do the blueprints for something like that work? Or is civilization itself, like so many other words and phrases, simply a convenient concept for the powerful huckster? Convenient because its aesthetic trappings can be so easily unmoored from actual meaning?
Five years after Clark’s special, the BBC showed John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Berger’s four-part documentary was intended in part as a rebuttal to Civilisation. While Clark’s series was imbued with a noblesse oblige version of “everyone has a right to culture,” Berger asserted that the right to culture also meant the right to shape and contribute to culture. He investigated how the photograph had revolutionized our interaction with the aesthetic. The transmittable image provided not merely the ability to bring an object’s representation to whoever might pick up a magazine or photo album, but the ability to manipulate the object’s meaning, to make it either conform to power or reveal the potentials of the radical democratic.
What one finds when they look at aesthetic history through this prism – the radical democratic, the socialist in other words – is that there has not been a single artistic-cultural item that has remained untouched by it. And why would it? History happens. Nothing and nobody are exempt from it. Particularly when humans themselves become the motor of historical change.
During the French Revolution, Notre-Dame’s look and feel, its meaning, all had a question mark placed over them. With the church’s power now openly challenged, openly threatened in fact, crowds of revolutionaries and laborers periodically stormed the cathedral and ripped down its statues. It was not mere anti-religiosity motivating this iconoclasm. Tearing down and decapitating 28 statues of the biblical Kings of Judah had an obvious anti-royal resonance to it.
In 1793 the cathedral hosted the Festival of Reason. Notre-Dame de Paris had become the Temple of Reason. Its busts of religious icons were replaced with those of Enlightenment philosophers and radicals. Robespierre’s naïve-but-admirable attempts to renovate every aspect of material and spiritual life were in keeping with temporal rupture, not erasing the past so much as changing history, its trajectory altered as the masses stormed it.
Neither politician nor historian have any clue what to make of moments like these. They have wasted millions of words and pages equivocating, attempting to parse the “good” from the “bad” in the French Revolution. It is a watershed for Enlightenment ideals, but gave way to excesses of the rabble that any unchecked ruler would find monstrous. During the revolution, reason and rationality carried with them the possibility for humans to collectively control their own destinies. Now they are less thrashed out than benevolently bestowed.
Take France’s precious laïcité. The doctrine of secularity, of reason’s ultimate triumph over myth and superstition, is today so arbitrarily applied that it may as well be a myth itself. Teachers can be prevented from wearing hijabs, but when a Catholic cathedral burns the government vows to rebuild. True, the events of the 1790s show that Notre-Dame is a site of history well outside the peculiarity of one religion. But Macron isn’t interested in rebuilding history. He is interested in preserving the past.
Civilization needs the past. More than roads or plumbing or agriculture or other prosaic markers of society, civilization needs the past. Most pointedly it needs that past to keep its parts static and unmoving, to sit conquered and quiescent while monuments are built on top of it. It needs symbols that withstand the actual ebb and flow of events.
When the gilets jaunes graffitied the Arc de Triomphe, smashing the faces of statues and busts, liberal and conservative alike swooned. Clearly the working and poor were nothing but nihilists, and that nihilism was proof that their grievances were ill-founded. The great ruptures in the story of France had already happened, and they were to remain in place, their agreed-upon meaning undisturbed. The future of its people – burdened by austerity and chastened by the imminence of a dying planet – were likewise carved from stone. The definition of existence had been decided, those who threatened it were wreckers.
There is something else discomfiting about the triumphalist fervor for rebuilding. Eighteen years ago the Buddhas of Bamyan were dynamited by the Taliban, less than a year before the United States invaded Afghanistan and officially launched the War on Terror. Archeological sites and museums were ransacked during the occupation of Iraq. ISIL, the militarized death cult that was bound to emerge from western-wrought carnage, has destroyed parts of Palmyra, ancient Sufi shrines in Libya, the Green Mosque in Mosul.
It is not unfair to say that the pressures of empire have uprooted much of what we have come to call “the cradle of civilization.” There was always the risk of Orientalism in this label: the east is ancient and stuck in its ways while the west is modern and enlightened. But again, that’s the beauty of a pliable word.
Note how few of these obliterated monuments have provoked the same indignation and resolve from western leaders. No refrains of “we must rebuild,” just “stuff happens.” Some parts of the past must be maintained at all costs, recreated if necessary. Others can be merely mourned.
During World War II, the Philippine capital of Manila was second only to Stalingrad in terms of the fiercest urban fighting. By then the four-hundred-year-old city had already been rebuilt more times than the ancient city of Troy. The Battle of Manila between occupying Japan and the United States left it devastated. In particular the Intramuros, the “Walled City” of churches and administration buildings dating back to the Spanish colonial period of the 1500s, was almost entirely destroyed.
It was under the murderous Marcos regime that the Intramuros Administration was founded as a subset of the Department of Tourism and tasked with rebuilding the Walled City. Since then, many urban planners and historians have been openly critical of the IA’s project. They have called the architectural style “inauthentic,” and compared the results of revitalization efforts to a theme park.
Maybe that’s all civilization is anymore: a theme park. A great big gatekeeping operation of aesthetics, of pasts lionized or ignored, vying for the shape of a straight and uninterrupted march of progress that is ultimately hollow at its core.
The past is, ultimately, far less consequential than history. Pity that most gatekeepers – be they bureaucrat or politician – don’t know the difference. Notre-Dame will undoubtedly be rebuilt and maintained. The same way that the rides at EuroDisney are periodically. And with it the idea that the past and history are synonymous: buttressed by unbending laws of what should and should not be, understood by a select few, observed and marveled at by the rest of us. The fever dream of civilization continues, and we are trapped in its walls as they are revamped over and over and over.