Civilization : Susan Buck-Morss


If human invention does not take place in a vacuum, its products cannot belong to any part of humanity exclusively. Across slices of time, the giant social units called civilizations are spaces so ecumenically shared that they are not one collective’s restricted inheritance. This suggests the viability of an approach to history that searches the archives as a shared composite of our common heritage – what I have called elsewhere a communist inheritance of the past.26 “Communist” is a provocative term, given the almost universal rejection of communist identity by present-day political actors. But its very abject status may make possible a rescue of the pre-Soviet and perhaps even pre-Marxist meaning of the word, laying the groundwork for a humanity-to-come. Communist, in the simple sense of shared (in French, partagé; in Turkish, paylasilan), implies a conception of property opposed to two familiar historical forms. The first is patrimony in the national/cultural/religious sense of property that cannot be alienated, but belongs permanently and exclusively to a particular collective. The second is capitalist property, which is precisely what can be alienated, indeed, must be alienated, in order for profits to be made: capitalist ownership means the right to sell. Now, it could be argued that the soviet socialist model, as the state appropriation of property, is a variant of the patrimonial idea, while, as Marx himself noted, crude communism, the unworkable prohibition against any private possessions, is simply leveled-down and universalized envy, the naive negation of capitalist-style privatization.27

But if what a person produces is judged by its social value, if this entails sharing a person’s talents and skills with the largest possible public, then approaching the accomplishments of humanity as a communist inheritance of the past suggests a changed understanding of who we are today. In principle, we are all included. There is no fault-line between us and them. Of course such a shared notion of social value is just that, an idea, a thought-experiment, a way to imagine otherwise – a necessary way, it might be argued, in order to deter the appalling scenario of ethnic hatreds, or civilizational clashes, or simply a reckless profit motive from translating into lethal struggles for water, land, resources, and ecological security.

In our age of technical reproducibility, there is at least a tendency in the development of the means of production that pushes us toward a different property regime. Its image glimmers on the computer screen with every act of internet-sharing. Knowledge-based production presses inherently toward free distribution of content. International scientists have already taken major steps beginning with the decision to post the newly mapped human genome on the internet and make it available, free of charge, for anyone in the world to download and use. Indeed, the globalization of research that allows scholars from all over the world to work in collaboration – institutionally, educationally, archaeologically, in archives, and in laboratories – necessitates an expanded vision of humanity.


The realization of such tendencies inherent in the present is in no way guaranteed. On the contrary, Samuel Huntington’s vision of an inevitable clash of civilizations seems to have captured political imagination globally. In a future confrontation of “the West and the rest,” Huntington predicted inevitable victory for “modern civilization,” Western in origin, yet universalized in multiple cultural forms. The Rest has responded with a compromise formation, “alternative modernities,” that allow for the durability of past civilizations in the form of continuing Islamic or Asian “cultural values.” But this means Western civilization remains the master concept against which others differentiate their imagined civilizational selves — as has been true, in fact, since the beginning. Davutoglu reminds us that Huntington was anticipated by Toynbee, who, writing about his own time (the 1930s), already claimed that

out of twenty-six civilizations no less than sixteen were dead and buried. . . . [Toynbee] concluded that the remaining ten surviving civilisations – the Christian near East, the Islamic, the Christian Russian, the Hindu, the Far Eastern Chinese, the Japanese, the Polynesian, the Eskimo and the Nomadic – were in their last agonies being under the threat of either annihilation or assimilation by Western civilisation.28

From a more critical perspective, Naoki Sakai has argued persuasively that the West is a “mythical construct,” having no objective referent even if, as Ashis Nandy insists, the West as a psychological category has real consequences in the world.29 What needs to be acknowledged is that in multiple cases throughout the world, the rhetoric of separate and clashing civilizations has been and continues to be deployed as a powerful means of political mobilization. And yet, dialectical thinking would caution against too quickly concluding that Huntington’s vision of the future is correct. I mean this: the policing of borders that politicians call for today can be seen as a sign, not of separation, but of increasingly multiple crossings. Only porous borders need defending. If a conceptual distinction describes reality, it ought not need to be defended by force.

As for the liberal-cosmopolitan description of civilizations that acknowledges the fuzziness of the concept and the multiplicity of possible definitions, while holding onto it in increasingly complicated ways – Peter Katzenstein’s argument for a model of “nested” civilizations is exemplary – this form of tolerance is more totalizing than any I would want to endorse.30 The multiple-points-of-view approach to defining civilizations that, it is implied, are nonetheless out there, overlapping and plural as they may be, is a relativist position. It depicts the complexity of “transcivilizational engagements, intercivilizational encounters, and civilizational clashes” to the point where, under the weight of so much pluralizing, the defining process itself breaks down.31

Perhaps the failure of the attempt to categorize civilizations is precisely (and dialectically) its truth. Perhaps the multiple definitions required are a symptom of the fact that the concept of civilization doesn’t define anything out there, hence the civilization we thought belonged to us, and we to it, is a fantasy. Then the increasing number of viewpoints needed to answer the question: “what is civilization?” indicates that the concept of civilizational differences is in the process of disintegrating. Really. And if this is so, then the more powerfully civilization, as a concept-in-ruins, is evoked to map future time and space, the more mythic that map will necessarily become.

Susan Buck-Morss is Distinguished Professor of Political Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, where she is a core faculty member of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change. She is Professor Emeritus in the Government Department of Cornell University. She specializes in Continental theory, specifically, German critical philosophy and the Frankfurt School. Her latest publications include Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009), Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left (2003), Dreamworld and Catastrophe. The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (2002) and The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (1989).

26. Emily Jacir and Susan Buck-Morss, 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts: Notebook Nr. 4 for Documenta 13 (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011).

27. See Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844: “This type of communism – since it negates the personality of man in every sphere – is but the logical expression of private property, which is this negation. General envy constituting itself as a power is the disguise in which greed re-establishes itself and satisfies itself, only in another way. The thought of every piece of private property as such is at least turned against wealthier private property in the form of envy and the urge to reduce things to a common level, so that this envy and urge even constitute the essence of competition. Crude communism [the manuscript has: Kommunist. – Ed.] is only the culmination of this envy and of this levelling-down proceeding from the preconceived minimum.” See

28. Ahmet Davutoglu, “Philosophical and Institutional Dimensions of Secularization,” 175n.

29. See Naoki Sakai, “The West – A Dialogic Prescription or Proscription?”; see also also: “‘You Asians’: On the Historical Role of the West and Asia Binary,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 99:4 (2000): 789-817; Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983); Kuan-Hsing Chen, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

30. See the three-volume opus Civilizational Politics in World Affairs Trilogy ed. Peter J. Katzenstein (New York: Routledge, 2010-2012), particularly his essay, “Anglo-America and its Discontents” (from the volume Anglo-American and its Discontents: Civilizational Identities Beyond West and East); see also “A World of Plural and Pluralist Civilizations: Multiple Actors, Traditions, and Practices,” in Civilizations in World Politics: Plural and Pluralist Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2009).

31. Peter J. Katzenstein, “A World of Plural and Pluralist Civilizations,” 1.

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