Civilization : Susan Buck-Morss

Rand McNally and Company / (Covers to) The Histomap / 1931
Rand McNally and Company / (Covers to) The Histomap / 1931

Civilization : Susan Buck-Morss


I do not like the formulation of the question: What is Civilization? It calls for a definition of the concept, a list of its descriptive determinations. Or, it evokes a well-known critical move, the announcement that civilization is constructed, followed by a genealogy of how, historically, such a construction occurred, and whose interests were thereby served. In the first case, we end up arguing over the meaning of words. In the second, we end up knowing once again that knowledge is power. In both cases, there are no surprises.

Now, I am the first to agree that history matters when it comes to concepts. By the way they partition meaning, concepts produce the divisions of time and space, history and the world, that are internalized as the chronologies and geographies of thought. But the deeper the historical excavation of a concept goes, the more vulnerable it becomes. Far from providing it with solid ground, the process of exposing its historical foundations can cause the concept itself to crumble.

Consider a key marker in political discourse today, the distinction between Western civilization and Islamic civilization. This distinction appears in multiple discussions globally, used largely without reflection to mark a difference that is supposed to matter. My general criticism can be stated quite plainly: to assume any civilizational authenticity, Islamic or Western, we would have to establish that such phenomena as authentic civilizations exist, and that they provide analytic categories stable enough to do the work of differentiating the life-worlds of individuals and groups that inhabit them. Does historical investigation justify such a claim?


The description and comparison of civilizations was not yet in play at the time of the European Enlightenment; at that time civilization was a unitary term that was opposed to barbarism and used (with notoriously brutal consequences) to describe indigenous peoples in the colonized world. But in nineteenth-century German historical thought, the conception of multiple, distinct civilizations became fruitful as a project of scholarship. The work of Hegel was determining for this tradition. Breaking away from an exclusive focus on political events (wars, rulers, empires), he changed the course of history writing. His philosophy of history that described sequential manifestations of the world spirit (Weltgeist)—from Oriental to Greek, to Roman, to German and modern—understood collective life as expressed in a multiplicity of objective forms: language, custom, law, art, and, centrally, religion. Precisely these fields became the sub-divisions of historical research, by which the texts and material traces of civilizations were mapped sequentially in time as distinct expressions of the human spirit.

In the twentieth century, Arnold Toynbee’s controversial topology of twenty-odd civilizations, past and present, made their historical study a central concern.1 But even when modernity in its globalized spread, as a kind of universal civilization, threatened to engulf the differences, civilizational distinctions remained valid as units of historical inquiry. Descriptions of great civilizations of the past implied, of course, the vulnerability to time of the West as well. Still, it took until the twentieth century for Oswald Spengler and other Western scholars to acknowledge the decline of the West as a real possibility. These divisions gave birth to rich empirical research with elaborate scholarly apparatuses, which despite Orientalist and Eurocentric premises that served the interests of colonial powers, rescued countless textual and material traces of collective life from permanent oblivion.

If the comparative study of civilizations originated as a discourse of European modernity, its deployment has not been limited to the place of its origins. Ahmet Davutoglu, the comparative political theorist who is presently Foreign Minister of Turkey, used the term in writings of the 1990s within a specific political situation.2 At a time when secular-nationalist military rule in Turkey made traditional life styles illegal, and women in the university donned the hijab in defiance of the law, his affirmation of the Islamic life-world was a democratic act of inclusion of Turkey’s religious populations against the forced modernization of the Kemalist state, which while economically successful, was politically oppressive. This oppression was the legacy of Mustafa Kemal’s etatism. Kemal, who abolished the Caliphate, as “’it could only have been a laughing-stock in the eyes of the civilized world’,” proclaimed the nation-state as the only “scientific political form, the exclusive model of Turkish political belonging,” while “repeatedly describ[ing] Islam as ‘the symbol of obscurantism’; as a ‘purified corpse which poisons our lives’; and as ‘the enemy of civilization and science’.”3

In this context, Davutoglu’s affirmation of authentic Islamic civilizational values was an act of resistance against the repressive military regime. His rhetoric appears as a progressive deployment of what has been described as “strategic essentialism,” the use of essentializing self-descriptions by groups, despite their internal differences, in order to achieve specific political goals.4 But even the strategic use of definitional essentialism is vulnerable to the most basic dialectic fallacy. Insofar as essentializing identities are politically successful, their claims outlive the context in which they were formulated. Once the government of Turkey itself became Islamic, conceptions of authentic Islamic civilization began to resonate with nostalgic desires for a return to the great age of Ottoman dominance, whatever Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s past or present intentions may be.


Susan Buck-Morssis Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center


Published on August 14, 2013

1. Toynbee’s count varied over his long writing career. Notoriously, he dismissed the idea of a Jewish civilization. For an anthology of major critiques of his work, see The Intent of Toynbee’s History: A Cooperative Appraisal, ed. Edward T. Gargan (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1961).

2. He refers directly to Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington in this context. See Ahmet Davutoglu, “Philosophical and Institutional Dimensions of Secularization,” in Islam and Secularisms in the Middle East, eds. John L. Esposito and Azzam Tamini (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 175.

3. Bobby S. Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Isalmism (London: Zed Books, 1997), 65 and 59. Sayyid notes, however, that rather than dismissing Islam totally Kemal “actively sought to reinscribe it within his own discourse” (63). One area in which Islamic concepts survived was in the discourse of national defense, the topic of new research by Pinar Kemerli at Cornell University.

4. Gayatri Spivak launched this term into the theoretical discussion with full awareness of its possible misuse. She was describing the salutary historical effects of “a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest,” not advocating the practice as a fundamental philosophical or political position. See The Spivak Reader, eds. Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean (London: Routledge, 1996), 214.

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