Friday, August 5, 2011

Civilization and its contents: how the world’s earliest cities manifest Neolithic carnal excesses

V. Gordon Chile (1892 - 1957)
“Libraries”, Foucault said, “are the habitat of Man.”  I was in a university library when I read this.  It was the Arts library at UCD in Belfield, south of Dublin city center, and I sat there, circa 1985, cloistered from a damp Dublin evening, digesting the dinner of an impecunious scholar – chips and sausage and a tin of mackerel.  The city, the university, the library, the book in my hand, calories from domesticated foodstuff, and even the lifestyle of writer and reader are part of a cluster of innovations that are all relatively recent in the making.  It was all so very civilized.  In fact, city, university, reader and writer, are some of the principles ingredients of civilization. 
Robert Bierstedt, a sociologist, reflected on those items that might serve as indices of civilization; his list is edifying and frustrating.   “Trousers and Bibles”, he said, “-these surely are unmistakable indices of civilization!”  His list  then proceeds by including traditional and less traditional indicators, for instance: “language, literacy, law, soap, paper, the wheel, money, government, religion, science, agriculture, the city, commerce, print, the domestication of animals, the breeding of cattle, the use of milk, the digging stick, the use of the fork, plumbing, dental caries, and even the dry martini.”[i]

Bierstedt’s review concluded that the use of the term civilization has been erratic; it is often conflated with “culture”; though when the two are distinguished, authors use those distinctions is conflicting ways.  The attributes of civilization are typically associated with subjective moods, things that the definer either likes or does not.  Bierstedt’s solution – one for which he claims simplicity and objectivity – is to use the degree of self-reflection, self-criticism, and other-awareness as a badge of civilization.  A primitive society, for instance, has “art but no aesthetics…religion but no theology, techniques but no science, tools but no technology…and finally a Weltanschauung but no philosophy.”  In sum, literate sophistication is the prime index of culture.  Bierstedt finally opined, “[we] thus have sociology itself, an index of civilization to which I would invite your earnest attention.”   Though he may be offering this with a chortle, the suggestion nonetheless instantiates one of the problems to which he alerted us – that is, the writer offering a definition having usually, in their own estimation, attained the apogee of civilization. 

Clearly, civilization cannot be defined in a simple fashion. The word, in fact, is quite a new one and consequently quite a malleable one.  Famously, Boswell and Johnson squabbled daintily on the term.  Boswell recounts that on Monday March 23, 1772 after a brief skirmish over the word “humiliating” (Johnson thought is not to be legitimate English), Johnson declared his intention to admit civility rather than civilization into his dictionary.  Boswell, as deferentially as he could, pointed out that “civilization, from to civilize” is a preferable term to be used in opposition to “barbarity”. 

The word has some etymological connections with the city though not as simply as is sometimes reported. The OED pronounces civilization to derive from the verb “civilize” and gives as an early use of the term Efraim Chambers’ legal usage in his “Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences” (1728).  There Chambers records it as “that which renders a criminal process, civil.”  In Middle French civiliser is “to make civil or sociable, to bring (a person, etc.) to a stage of social, moral, or intellectual development considered to be more advanced.” Drilling down further, the word “civil” comes from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French where, in the legal sense, it indicates a case not belonging to criminal law or to canon law.  Therefore, a primary meaning of civil relates it to the affairs of ordinary citizens.  Finally, through citizen we get the connection with the city.  “Citizen” derives from Middle English citesein, Latin cīvitātānum etc. meaning a dweller of a city.   

I have taken the etymologically scenic route here connecting “civilization” to the city by way of “civility” and “citizen” primarily because village or city-dwelling is often one of the hallmarks employed by archeologists in their accounts of the development of civilization.  Especially influential is the account given by V Gordon Childe, the Australian Marxist archeologist, in his discussion of the Urban Revolution.  Childe reiterating the archeological schemes of the 19th C, confirmed that human societies were “savage” in the Pleistocene, and that “barbarism” began with the Neolithic.  Roughly, the distinction here is between hunter-gatherers (savage) and early agriculturalist (barbarians).  Civilization comes as the next stage – a stage that many, including Lewis Morgan in his 1878 Ancient Society, distinguish by the use of a phonetic alphabet and the production of a literary record”. (Read more here on Morgan and Ancient Society.)  Childe though remarks that “etymologically the word [civilization] is connected with city and sure enough life in cities begins with this stage.” To use writing as an indicator is valuable only because the term city is itself and ambiguous one.  Importantly, Childe observes the bright idea of building a city has never occurred to the savage: peoples must first be barbarians before laying the city cornerstone.  Why is this so?  Though he is not the first to recognize it, Childe succinctly provided the reason: “The new economy [of the Neolithic] allowed, and indeed required, the farmer to produce every year more food than was needed to keep him and his family alive. In other words it made possible the regular production of a social surplus.”  These surpluses are in the early stages of barbarism too slim to support specialists or true urbanites.  The oldest cities, as Childe reckoned them, are those associated with irrigated agriculture, since it is only through irritation that the land produces an agricultural surplus rich enough to support dense populations.   

With schemes such as Childe’s, one gets a functional, progressive account of the emergence of the civilization; rather than Biersted's indicial approach to identifying civilization, where one knows a civilization when one sees it (or, rather, see a cluster of its).  So, the domestication of plants (and in some cases animals) followed by the accumulation of certain technical innovations (irrigation, metallurgy etc), leads to a surplus that makes civilization and its attributes possible.  This process of civilization was independently “discovered” in a number of locations and diffused out from these areas.

The inimitable Louis Mumford in his The City in History (a book for which the adjective magisterial might have been invented) does not stray too far from this progressive account of the urbanite's functional reliance upon the fat of the land.  “The richness of this greatly augmented food supply” Mumford declared, “may have had a stirring effect upon both the mind and the sexual organs.”[ii]  Early agricultural folk leisurely enjoyed erotic pleasures afforded by the “easy pickings” of their newly domesticated foods and the bloated excess of their reproduction settled down to found the earliest cities.  Thus the world’s earliest cities are a manifestation of Neolithic carnal excesses stimulated by the domestication of grass.  But in order for the city to emerge at all it must have built upon a broader set of preexisting tendencies already securely in place.  Human life, Mumford said, swings between the poles of movement and settlement.  To settle down in permanent hamlets, villages and eventually cities, requires that humans build upon their more static tendencies.  He pointed to evidence for such tendencies in early humans pausing at favorable hunting sites, in an attraction to places of sacred importance, and in respect for the permanent abode of the dead – the grave.  From this ‘one has” Mumford said, “the beginning of a succession of civic institutions that range from the temple to the astronomical observatory, from the theatre to the university.”

Thus as I sat in the Belfield library, a Foucault volume in hand, I could understand myself to be beneficiary of a strange encounter between the reproductive physiologies of primate and grass, and the ecological fecundity of ancient environments that sustained surpluses of both. 

[i] Robert Bierstedt (1966) Indices of Civilization.  American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 71, No. 5, pp. 483-490
[ii] Mumford, Louis (1961) The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects.  Harcourt Press.

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