Civilization Never Happened

I.

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? 

II. 

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.  

III. 

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 laïcitéThe 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. 

IV. 

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. 

V. 

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. 

Dérive 1: Lighthouse Realty Associates

Los Angeles is a city that should not exist. No desert was meant to hold an urban hub of this size. As its fifteen year (we may as well call it permanent) state of drought confirms, it is a non-location, a place that that manages to weirdly persist due to simple inertia over sustainability. The wildfires that grow in size and intensity every season, ever-encroaching into La-La Land, are not only general reminders of a planet that will soon be too warm to contain the current civilization; they feel like deep time retching up a virus contracted long ago. That it is also where the United States manufactures its ego, its own version of cultural relevance, is only too appropriate, as the recent burning of Malibu makes so very clear.

The further one travels from the city’s most famous hearts, however, the more frequent and undeniable the desert becomes, the more Los Angeles seems to become ordinary, pedestrian, completely and maddeningly unremarkable. Take Eagle Rock, wedged between Pasadena and Glendale, two entirely separate municipalities both from each other and from the city of LA, it is something of a transition point from urban to suburban and quickly into exurban. Directly to the neighborhood’s north are several miles of highway and relatively sparse urban sprawl that quickly spill into Angeles National Forest.

Walking along the edges of Eagle Rock is a lesson in how an unplanned city architecturally improvises. The palm trees and cacti are predictably everywhere, incorporated into the landscapes of well-to-do middle class homes and shops. But venture out along Colorado Boulevard in the direction of Glendale; watch the pretense of uniqueness give way to the prefabricated and undeniably utilitarian.

Walk under the highway, perhaps to get a pack of cigarettes from the nearest gas station, and you’ll see the ways in which the architecture of commerce utterly fails in its notion of “welcoming.”

Gas stations may have themselves given up on being welcoming long ago — or at the very least traded it for overwhelming you with the illusion of unlimited choice — but when you turn back around you come to a real estate office: “Lighthouse Realty Associates.”

When I walked by it this past week, I had a very odd kind of flashback, to summer vacations in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The wood on the building’s side is deliberately a bit rough even as it is painted an earthy brown, warm in intent if not in actuality. The bushes out front are sculpted and well kept, but read as a species of plant more native to the American South than that of the West. Even the sign and name of the place appeared as more reminiscent of the east coast. Of course, there are plenty of lighthouses in Southern California. But they do not play as prominent a role in constructing a historical narrative and current imaginary like they do back east.

Of course, there is nothing specifically North Carolinian about this little plot of urban design. To me it only read as such because of the contours of memory that have been left in my own emotional and mental being by a childhood that was uniquely mine. But that’s the point. How many current concepts in the wheelhouse of contemporary office design have made “welcoming” and “cookie cutter” interchangeable? What does this do to our notion and experience of space? Of time? Of our ability to progress on either plane? Are we left with any indication that we are in Glendale other than a bestowed but somehow shared knowledge that we are just… in Glendale?

Turn around. Walk back into Eagle Rock and into Los Angeles, a distinction you can make thanks not to any landmarks or lighthouses, but simply because the signs tell you that you have crossed over from one to another. But then you see an unmistakable reminder that you are back in LA and, in fact, have never left the county: a small encampment of tents under the overpass.

Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis is one of the worst in the US, and one doesn’t have to go to Skid Row, with its 8,000 strong tent city, to be confronted with this. It is on every other block, in every neighborhood save for the richest (where residents experiencing homelessness are hassled along by compliant cops and, increasingly, private security forces). And if that somehow fails to remind you, then at the very least you will see it whenever you try to find a new apartment in your price range.

Which brings us to the real problem. How much of the unremarkable, the quotidian and faceless that tweaks with our sense of time and place, have we simply come to accept and integrate into our daily experience? And how much does this go to prove to us, on however subconscious a level, that the city is beyond our control?

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.