Academic journal article ARIEL

Toward an Inoperative Civilization

Academic journal article ARIEL

Toward an Inoperative Civilization

Article excerpt

Abstract: The unapologetic re-emergence in recent years of the term "civilization" in American foreign policy circles and best-selling books merits closer scrutiny. This essay examines two different views of civilization that have attracted recent critical attention. The first is a rather militant defense of civilization. In this view, civilized nations see themselves as exempt from the very laws and principles on which they are founded, thereby enabling them, in the name of the civilizing (or pro-democracy) mission, to exert force or violence on those others who threaten civilization (also known as "barbarians," "savages," "terrorists," or "enemies of democracy") and who also happen to be, conveniently, in a state of exception from civilization and can therefore be subjected to violence. The second model of civilization reflects a certain liberal optimism. Rather than precipitating "clashes," civilization, in this view, does not confer exceptionality on a nation or allow for the exploitation of vulnerable others; instead, a civilization should concern itself with the expansion and fusion of horizons and the need to engage in a dialogue with other cultures and societies without exception or exclusion. In describing these two views, I note the violence inherent in the model of civilization as an exception and the difficulties that confront the dialogical model. Drawing on the work of Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben, as well as J. M. Coetzee's novel Waiting for the Barbarians, I conclude with some reflections on the need to revise our current views of civilization by sketching an alternative possibility of an inoperative civilization.

Keywords: civilization, Giorgio Agamben, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jean-Luc Nancy, J. M. Coetzee


... in order to then bring to light the Ungovernable, which is the beginning and, at the same time, the vanishing point of every politics.

Giorgio Agamben, What is an Apparatus? (24)

On the evening of 25 September 2002, in a speech delivered at the National Republican Senatorial Committee dinner, George W. Bush declared, "We owe it to our children's children to defend freedom, to free people from the clutches of barbarism. We owe it to civilization itself, to remain strong and focused and diligent" ("Remarks"). Six months later in March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. In the last few months of his presidency in June 2008, on a farewell visit to the United Kingdom to thank the British for their military contribution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush remarked that "the liberation of 50 million people from the clutches of barbaric regimes is noteworthy at a minimum" (qtd. in Temkow). As described by the forty-third president of the US and his advisors, the twenty-first century appears to be caught in a clash between civilization and barbarism. "Civilization" has thus emerged, or rather, re-emerged, as a keyword in the political lexicon of our era.

In the course description of her 2009 Columbia University graduate anthropology class titled "Recognition, Espionage, Camouflage," Professor Elizabeth Povinelli writes:

   The post 9/11 world seems to have reorganized the logic and
   relations of recognition and civilization, the sovereign and
   neoliberal state. Pundits praised the "prescience" of Samuel
   Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. Scholars rushed to embrace
   Agamben's state of exception. Politicians in democracies sought
   to reclaim strong executive powers, the right to designate enemies,
   to kill, to suspend constitutional rights, and to rely on
   nondemocratic regimes to torture for truth. Civilization reemerged
   in an unapologetic form--a mode of differentiating
   the world in social and historical terms.

Recently, historian Niall Ferguson published a best-selling book titled Civilization: The West and the Rest. Ferguson claims that his text is not an unapologetic affirmation of Western civilization (though there is nothing in it that would suggest the contrary). …

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