Monday, February 20, 2006

THE END OF CIVILISATION? (Response to an Enquiry)

The following text responds to an enquiry on 'The End of Civilisation?' posed by the Prague Surrealist Group in November 2005. The questions were distributed to members of the international Surrealist movement; responses are being collated and will appear in a future issue of Analogon.

1) Which stage of development (rise, stabilisation, decline) describes our present Euro-American civilisation (i.e. roughly in the period of the Modern Age) in view of the ambitions and qualities by which this period identifies itself and distinguishes itself from other parallel civilisations (Islam, the Third world, etc.)

2) What kind of shift (progressive or regressive) do you perceive within the last 30-40 years? What could you name as the most substantial characterising moment (paradigm, value orientation…) of the civilisational/cultural, social, psychosocial or other transformation.

I will take these two questions together.

There is a level at which the answers to these questions seem fairly obvious. We are living under a form of advanced capitalism which is globalised and consumerist, which can perhaps most pithily be summed up in Debord’s phrase as the Society of the Spectacle, and which is currently inseparable from US imperialism. This has a double aspect. On the one hand, the acceleration of globalisation makes it increasingly difficult to talk about different national ‘societies’ or regional ‘civilisations’ as discrete entities in any meaningful way. On the other hand the interests of US imperialism are well served by the ideology of ‘Western civilisation’ as something which is discrete and indeed in need of aggressive protection from its enemies, in which role they have most recently cast ‘Islamic fundamentalism’.

If one goes beyond this level, however, it appears that these answers – and even the questions themselves – have not yet moved as far as possible beyond the anthropocentrism with which surrealism today is so concerned. The classification of history into ‘periods’, and the narrative of those periods’ ‘evolution’, still places humankind in what Svankmajer has called the leading role. Indeed the problem of how to conceive time outside of anthropocentric history has been before us since at least Arcanum 17. In this book Breton evokes the figure of the child-woman precisely because she is – so he claims – outside time, but I would argue to the contrary this figure is still beholden both to anthropocentrism and to patriarchy. By far the more successful break with anthropocentric time, although Breton himself does not quite recognise this, is embodied in the Percé Rock, which as he notes is not eternal but nevertheless comes in and out of existence outside of any human timescale. Arcanum 17 begins with the marvellous organic and inorganic rhythms of the rock, the sea and the seabirds. I think we can justly regard those rhythms as movements of non-anthropocentric time, as the pulsing of inhuman life. Where Breton inhabits the anthropocentric time of war in 1944, and we inhabit the anthropocentric time of war in 2005, there is also avian time, marine time, mineral time. Thus whereas Breton conjures ‘the salvation of the earth by woman’, I suggest that a more fully anti-anthropocentric view of history might instead imagine the salvation of the earth by seabirds. As surrealism moves in this direction, new fields of enquiry open up before us, from the erotic rhythms of cell division to the alien passions of a coral reef, from the convulsive beauty of whales to the objective chance of microbes.

Here then we have two views of time. One places humankind at centre stage and diagnoses the goods and ills of humanity under its various forms of civilisation – and indeed, one might add, under its forms of barbarism, a concept which is no less anthropocentric than that of civilisation. The other rejects anthropocentrism so decisively that it is a view of time which can barely be called historical at all in any sense in which that term is usually understood. The difficult task of surrealist praxis now is not simply to spurn one of these views in favour of the other, nor to try to fuse them into a single idea, but rather to bring them into dialectical relationship with each other. In doing this we may be able to analyse the current status of human civilisation while at the same time moving beyond the anthropocentric limitations of either civilisation or barbarism.

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