15 May 2012

What is Civilization? 2. Markers

Europeans attached definite markers onto the skeleton of “progress.”  Generally, of course, anything European was better than anything Indian.  (Though there are interesting stories about how Europeans came to adopt some Indian ways of life.  For example, it took time, trial, and error, for the French to learn the value of the canoe over the row boat.  It would be an interesting book to draw out the stories in a variety of areas.)

There is no agreed upon “essence” of civilization that Indians lacked and Europeans had, but certain clusters of attributes often appear.  Whites believed that in Indian culture the land was held by the community, individuals gained status by giving things away, the tribe demanded loyalty, nature was animated and perhaps worshiped, the legal system was rudimentary and based in nature or tradition, Indians were illiterate, and they fed themselves primarily by hunting and gathering.

Whites, by contrast, insisted on private property (especially with regard to land), that status is achieved by how much you can accumulate, that the nation-state deserved the highest loyalty, that nature must be conquered, that their own legal system was an achievement in dispensing justice, that reading and writing were fundamental to civilization, and that farming and ranching were appropriate occupations for civilized peoples.

If I had to define a “center” to these mutually exclusive lists, it would be the notion of land as private property.  Everything else is required to validate and ensure the security of private property.  John Locke would be proud.

Adams points out that the function of the Dawes Act of 1887 was to break up the loyalty to the tribe by parceling out the land of the Indian reservations to individuals.

Here again, a few notes:  First, to me these markers provide a very narrow take on what civilization is, but it does indicate that critiques of private property (Christian, Marxist, Anarchist, etc.) may in fact go to the heart of the American experiment.

Second, Christianity.  Europeans simply assumed, on the basis of long tradition, that theirs was a “Christian society” even a “Christian civilization” or a “Christian nation.”  Indians, then, would need to become Christians if they had any hope of being civilized. This take on Christianity is even more narrow, though whether Catholics (France, Spain, Portugal) or Protestants (Britain) were in charge seemed to make little difference in the approach to Indians.  This seems to me a strong indication of how thoroughly the church had become subject to the state.  More on this later.

Third, Europeans were always split on whether “civilized” just meant “white” such that neither blacks, nor Indians, nor Asians could ever truly participate in “civilization.”  Andrew Jackson, whose refusal to enforce the law as determined by the Supreme Court created the “Trail of Tears” [I still don’t understand why this did not create a constitutional crisis], said in his second inaugural address that the destruction of the Indians by the whites was exactly parallel to “the extinction of one generation to make room for another.”  That is, Indians, not even the Cherokee, those who had most adapted to the civilized American ways listed above, could ever be civilized.  So they died, but not of old age, the way one generation makes room for another.

14 May 2012

What is Civilization? 1. Progress

David Wallace Adams, in Education for Extinction:  American Indians and the Boarding School Experience 1876-1928, (University of Kansas, 1995) says that the idea of civilization is “an idea almost deeper than ideology itself.” (p. 12.)  I don’t care for the “almost”, but I take this as the claim that ideology is itself in the service of civilization, and so the presumption of the nature and goodness of civilization is the one idea shared by all ideologies.

From the time Europeans and Indians first encountered each other, Europeans considered the Indians as “uncivilized”, that is as either savages or barbarians.  So, what were the markers of civilization? 
Most fundamental is the notion of “progress.”  Progress is movement along two axes simultaneously:  from lower to higher and from the past to the present.  This meant that when Europeans encountered Indians, they believed it was as if they had stepped back in time.  It also means that they step back into a state of being that is less desirable.  It is inconceivable to Europeans that an Indian way of life might be preferable to a European life. 

This map of progress could also be laid out geographically from the West to the East, with the East being the most civilized.  Further, Europeans thought of this progress as inevitable, either as a natural law or as the working out of divine favor.

Before going further with this, I want to make two notes:  First, this is a typically Enlightenment approach to culture and tradition in general.  That is, on the Enlightenment critique, culture or tradition is the source of superstition and unjustifiable differences in power.  Therefore, (because they are nothing more than that) culture or tradition must be destroyed and replaced by rational laws.

Second, this is the very same argument we hear today when people say, “Welcome to the 21st century” or when we consider people, arguments, or traditions “backwards.”  The geography has changed.   The North is more progressive than the South; both coasts are more progressive than “fly-over-country.”  But progress is considered just as inevitable, just as preferable, now in the name of pluralism.   

13 November 2011

CLM again

"the delaminated view of the earth that characterizes western science." p. 112.  Nice turn of phrase.

27 September 2011

Techne, Phronesis, and Archery

Working through Gadamer's Truth and Method today, specifically his account of techne and phronesis in Aristotle (Ethics Bk 6).  It occurs to me that the differences within the archery community are often differences between those  who see archery as a techne and those who see it in terms of phronesis.  That is, some archers are after a product, a high score.  The means for achieving that score are largely separable from the score itself.  So, any modification in equipment is open for consideration in order to achieve accuracy and consistency.  Others are after a certain experience or the execution of certain action performed well.  Almost everything about the experience may be deemed crucial to performing the action well, so that the means and the end are inseparable.  Archers of this school will tend to be conservative in the equipment choices and resistant to change, because what is open for negotiation is much smaller.  It seems to me that both "traditional archers" and Japanese kyudo archery fall into this second camp.

16 April 2011

Notes on Requests and Freedom

One alleged point of difference between “Western” cultures and the cultures of indigenous hunter-gatherers (glossing over for the sake of simplicity the differences within both Western cultures and those we describe as hunter-gatherers) is this: When Westerners need something, they directly ask someone to get it for them; when hunter-gatherers need something, they state their own need, but they do not directly ask someone to provide for that need.

This difference is then glossed with an interpretation: Westerners don’t hesitate to tell others what to do, to give orders, to take charge, to assume that their needs are the ones that need to be met; hunter-gatherers leave their companions free to respond or to not respond to the stated need because nothing is directly asked of them. Westerners treat other people like domesticated animals; hunter-gathers treat the environment and other animals as persons deserving of respect. (See V.R. Cordova, How it Is: The Native American Philosophy of V.F. Cordova, p. 25-6., and Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill, p. 69-70.)

Put in the terminology of speech act theory, requesting is an illocutionary act; in hunter-gatherer societies requesting is an indirect illocutionary act. The perlocutionary effects of requesting in these ways are exactly opposite: the effect of the one is to feel imposed upon, coerced, not trusted; the effect of the other is to operate in trust, freedom, and harmony.

The differences indicated and the meaning of those differences rely on associating direct requests with manipulation and indirect requests with autonomy and freedom.

In my experience these terms are correlated in the exact opposite way. That is, a direct request makes it clear what exactly is needed. It leaves the one asked free to respond with a “Yes, I can do that” or “No, I’m sorry I can’t.” It sets a parameter so that everyone can know whether the request has been filled or not. Conversely, an indirect request remains vague as to the nature of the need and so requires considerable powers of divination even among married couples, it does not call for a response as to whether meeting the need is within the power of the one within earshot, and finally it remains indeterminate as to whether the need has been met, for nothing has been directly requested and no interpretation has been confirmed. That is, direct requests seem more aligned with granting freedom to the respondee and indirect communication is more likely to feel manipulative.

21 March 2011

Augustinian Phenomenology

Yet, though they [trees] and all corporeal things have causes which lie hidden in their nature, they do display their forms ... for perception by our senses; and so it seems that, even though they themselves cannot know, they nonetheless wish to be known. City of God, xi.27.

17 March 2011


Why is "program" such a powerful metaphor when speaking of mental phenomena? I've never truly programed anything. Neither have most people. I'm reading a book published in 1974, and already it is talking about "programing the mind." 1974!