Civilizational Complexes and Processes: Elias, Nelson, and Eisenstadt

John Mandalios. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

The study of the forms of society, culture, polity, religion and economy that ordinarily envelop human beings throughout their lives is an integral part of historically informed social analysis. This tradition of analysis stems back to the ancient scholars of war Thucydides—and geoculture—Herodotus, gaining new impetus with the study of industrial capitalist societies (Marx and Weber), the rise and overthrow of noble or decadent values (Nietzsche) and, more recently, the formation of nation-states and nationalism. The comparative and historical analysis of the different ways in which Heidegger’s ‘being-in-the-world’ can be understood has been a central tenet of social analysis oriented towards conceptualizing the deeply historical, social nature of being (ontos). To be human is, as Aristotle first observed, to give expression to our essentially gregarious nature as mediated and realized through various forms of social intercourse, deliberation and institutionalization. This gregariousness takes on various colourations according to time, space, symbolism, corporeality, affect structures and long-term social learning processes. The complex ways in which the latter perform their work to produce the interesting human being may be denoted as a civilizational complex. In this chapter, I will expound upon different aspects and conceptions of this complex, discussing the necessity to conceive of late modern individuals (and social forms) within the parameters of a civilization-analytic framework. The comparative dimension of this discussion will serve to also highlight the heuristic value of conceiving of social life in all its multifarious forms, particularly when the person is now constantly subjected to media-saturated images of ‘globalization’ that misleadingly suggest the overcoming of diverse civilizational lineages, that is, cultural traditions.

Sociogenesis and Psychogenesis of Modern Existence

Discourses on the particular way in which the human being has come to belong to a particular cultural tradition and, concomitantly political community have raised the question of the most apposite unit of analysis for the task. Following the early modern initiatives made by Marx, Nietzsche and Freud towards an analytical framework of the civilized self, the European historical-social theorist Norbert Elias developed an interesting proces sual theory of the making of the modern individual as a distinctly disciplined (or regulated), reflexive creature of civilization. To be more precise, Elias developed an analytics of individual existence based upon the concept of persons becoming transformed in and through a number of ‘civilizing processes.’ Thus, rather than focusing on the noun ‘civilization,’ the verb civilizing is privileged in order to highlight the fact that individuals are both subjects and agents of long-term historical processes. Writing his magnum opus—Ü;ber den Prozess der Zivilisation just before his father would die in Breslau (1940) and his mother in Auschwitz (1941), Elias drew out subtle historico-national distinctions between the German (preference for) Kultur and the French (preference for)civilisation, a derivative of the older concepts of civilisé, cultivé, civilité and politesse (1978: 4-5, 39). In the History of Manners Elias argued that an important difference between the concepts of culture and civilization lies in their respective relation to motion: ‘civilization’ describes a process or at least the result of a process’ (1978: 5). Whereas the concept Kultur ‘delimits,’ that is, it highlights Kant’s particular (as against the universal), civilisation refers to ‘something which is constantly in motion’ (1978: 5). For instance, human behaviour, psychical affects and modes of social identification are constantly undergoing change, or, more accurately, are always in a state of becoming. We understand this concept and its cognate—civilizing—as capturing the theoretical specificity of both particularity and universality in the transitive verb, becoming. A civilizing process hence points to how the individual becomes that which she or he is. To be is indistinguishable from the process of becoming civilized: socially acculturated yet simultaneously individuated and recognized as belonging to a certain society of humankind an identifiable way of being and associating with others. Whilst this kind of empirical, historical and prescribed modality is not divorced from the holy trinity of modern sociology class, race and gender—it nevertheless trans-valuates the particularity of each of these specific logics to articulate a more transcendent form of identification; one which appropriately posits our essential relation to nature, the body, the rule of law, symbolic forms and facets of cultural life we commonly take for granted but rather anachronistically came under the spell of cultural studies at one point. While the latter approach has tended to reinforce the old idealist-materialist dichotomy, this theoretic eschews false oppositions to propound a more inclusive analytic framework that pays heed to the multiple ‘locations’ of the human subject, on the one hand, and the interdependency of so-called ‘material life’ and self-consciousness, on the other.

In Eliasian language, civilizing processes entail the facets of life which German philosophers ever since Kant have tended to privilege, promulgating the virtues of Geist manifest within Kultur rather than the more ‘apparent’ world conveyed by the concept ‘civilization.’ But they also give voice to that realm of objects which elude the romantics concern with subjectivity and virtue, namely the objective social conditions and determinants of consciousness which comprise the longue durée that interests Elias and other civilizational analysts. The latter comes close to, though differs from, what Nietzsche—following the Greeks—called ‘necessity.’

One of the central arguments within Elias’s theory concerns the ‘sociogenesis’ and ‘psychogenesis’ of the modern individual. Elias undertook to explain the genealogy of the modern individual in a not too dissimilar fashion to Michel Foucault’s historical archaeology of modern disciplinary institutions and discursive practices. Rejecting the reductionist tendencies of Marxist and liberal accounts of the rise of the modern individual and its peculiar Weltanschauung, Elias drew out the lineages from which there emerged and developed a more rational, self-regulated, ‘civilized’ human being of a higher level of development (cultivation) and therefore self-consciousness. Rather than attributing all this to the rise of capitalism or liberal constitutional democracy, he argued that contemporary modes and standards of behaviour are a result of long-term processes which gradually form the individual into a particular kind of person, one who as a result of numerous civilizing processes adopts a particular mode of existence: amodus operandi which fundamentally defines the person’s relation to the world. This modality includes the self’s relation to (and understanding of) the body, outer nature (the environ), the other or outsider, the affects, the social or institutional order and the ratio, the organ or faculty of reasoning. To understand the making of the modern self, therefore, requires an appreciation of the role which civilizing processes play, and how they mitigate the apparent utility of dualisms such as inside-outside, society-personality subjective-objective, micro-macro, progressive-reactionary, high culture-low culture and powerful-powerless.

The contours of contemporary life owe much of their present form to significant developments which antedated not only the emergence of the bourgeoisie or the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but also the modern juridical subject. According to Elias, modern consciousness can be traced back to a number of formative processes which over some centuries gave rise to an aristocratic order and absolutist state that had profound affects for how we come to see ourselves, our behaviour, the standards of acceptability (that is, civility) and the natural world. Principal amongst these are, first, the gradual process of pacification of the warrior leading to his ‘courtization’; and, second, the courtization of ever larger numbers of warriors, which corresponded to the creation of larger princely estates that eventually came under the control of courtly society (Elias, 1982; 1983). The gradual demise of feudal parcellized sovereignties and localistic loyalties that testified to the predominance of violent forms of life and a certain pre-reflective disposition points simultaneously to (a) extensions in the networks of power traversing social spaces and (b) an increasing centralization of social, economic and military forces, initially around increasingly larger courts, and subsequently around the (absolutist) state. Discontented with the comparative emphasis and narrowness pervading much of contemporary cultural and historical inquiry, Elias admonished:

[I]t is not enough to see and describe the particular events in different countries in isolation. A new picture emerges, and a new understanding is made possible, if the many individual courts of the West, with their relatively uniform manners, are seen together as communicating organs in European society at large (1982: 6).

Before the nation usurped the imagination of the intelligentsia, civilizing processes imbued people with common standards of civilization such as modes of conduct toward others (as well as oneself), cultivation, bodily regulation, juridical state apparatuses and symbolic exchanges between more reflexive, morally individuated persons. In particular, it is first with an aristocracy that spans Europe as a whole that there emerges a configuration of (courtly) manners which will eventually disseminate and thus permeate all spheres of society. For instance, by citing various literary fragments Elias (1978) shows historically how the much taken-for-granted practices of blowing one’s nose, curtailing spitting, table/ eating behaviour, bedroom behaviour and changes regarding attitudes towards the other sex and toward aggressiveness became accepted norms of self-expression and conduct. What these taken-for-granted cultural practices evidence is more than simply socialization and acceptable standards of behaviour, namely civility; they also represent an achievement of social construction and thus the historicality of psychical phenomena which we may otherwise be inclined to naturalize, that is, claim are given by human ontology. Whilst changes in our material culture such as the emergence of eating implements, dress codes and regimes of bodily controls stand as ‘civilizing spurts or thrusts’ (that is, change in a particular direction, with higher or lower thresholds of restraints), they also serve to illustrate important changes in the personality structures of human beings. In other words, the sociogenesis of new standards of human civility (and state formation) is simultaneously also the psychogenesis of the individual: the inner life or so-called ‘personality,’ ‘soul,’ self, Leibnizian windowless ‘monad,’ Kantian subject and Cartesian cogitio which the human sciences are still grappling with owing to the enormous conceptual power of homo clausus. Historical sociology, by contrast, leaves such metaphysical notions as the ‘transcendental self or the ‘Being of beings’ (Heidegger) in agnostic suspension. Elias’s social ontology, we might say, is summarized by the following observation: essentialists or atomic thinkers ‘have difficulty conceiving people as relatively but not absolutely autonomous and interdependent individuals forming changeable figurations with one another’ (1978: 248). An historical-figurational-sociological analysis of the centralizing networks of power—‘quanta of power’—of monopolistic mechanisms of the state would conjointly provide an account of the inner (intra-psychical) mechanisms of control over the affects which increasingly come under scrutiny as a result of evertightening circles of social constraint leading to corresponding levels of self-restraint. That is, social constraint has as its correlate levels of self-restraint that accompany the individual’s greater ability (or necessity) for self-regulation and observation. In court society, persons substituted the power of the sword with the power of symbolic exchange, which meant that people inhabiting pacified social spaces had become dependent upon their relative abilities to observe themselves—including their bodily comportment and affect thresholds—others, assess the relative value of persons analogous to the rise and fall of stocks on exchanges, evaluate the relative risks involved in exceeding one’s status position, and develop the necessary foresight to anticipate fluctuations in the status distinction and power differential of persons or alliances within the operative ambit of power. Thus the drives come under the gaze of those forces of social constraint that require higher levels of self-restraint owing to an increasing interde pendency between individuals who are now more individuated but less physically violent yet highly adept at symbolic manipulation, interpretation and political negotiation.

Lack of self-restraint now comes to stand for more than simply brutish behaviour; it increasingly becomes the prerequisite for survival in a quasi-social Darwinian struggle. But rather than simply being a mark of cosmopolitan sophistication—as the culturalists of today may be inclined to think—psychical mechanisms of regulation and sublimation are now centralized (so-called ‘internalization’) in the figuration of self, who is simultaneously enveloped by the civilizing processes of state formation, normative regulation and personality changes. The latter sees heightened-lessened levels of self-control, self-consciousness and reflection and thus—as is clearly evident today—a more individuated path of ego formation. Consistent with both anthropological and psychoanalytical findings that ego formation in the child is greatly altered by existence in a more complexly organized political society with higher levels of division of labour and signification, Elias’s theory links ego formation with state formation and human civility. Ego and super-ego formations therefore undergo a transformation under the strictures of a civilité that originally emerged within the pacified (but symbolic-rich) spaces of court society, spread across aristocratic classes and eventually disseminated down to the middle classes and finally the urban and rural working classes. The universality, for instance, of the presence of forks and knives on tables and modes of self-regulation that produce self-restraint (particularly in relation to the body and morals) demonstrate the efficacy of centrifugal networks of power that give force to the disseminating power of both ‘civilizing’ and ‘decivilizing thrusts’; the former generally standing for stricter or tighter regimes of self-comportment and moral conduct, and the latter for more informal or ‘looser’ configurations. Relativistically speaking, the standard of acceptable behaviour in public spaces, including that relating to bodily functions, is nominal: behaviour-thresholds are historically established and socially determined but not necessarily unilinear in their direction, or (following Nietzsche) ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in themselves. Thus the argument that the so-called ‘casualization’ of social norms of behaviour (for example, ‘grunge’ and ‘post-grunge’ informality) cannot be properly accounted for by this particular theoretical perspective is seriously flawed. What Elias showed in State Formation and Civilization is that the modern subject consciously or unconsciously wavers or oscillates between ‘thrusts’ and ‘countervailing thrusts’ of becoming ‘civilized,’ regulated or normalized. To dress or speak extremely casually in everyday life, in other words, is wholly consistent with Elias’s argument that drive and affect structures which make individuals also yearn for ‘simpler times’ or a more natural existence reveal the fundamental ambivalence that marks civilizing processes. That is, normalization today requires us to be totally au fait with our (historically specific) more relaxed, informal modes of presentation—of speaking, dressing, greeting, eating, ars erotica, working and writing. In fact, civility in the first place was never some kind of imposition from above; rather, it was constituted by an interaction between the more stricter controls of aristocratic culture and the looser arrangements of the bourgeois and working classes. A further extension of informal codes of conduct/ representation is therefore an integral aspect of a civilizing process: that is, it becomes a signifier of civilized life to know how to be ‘more relaxed with your body’ or ‘appear cool’ amongst your peers even while we are becoming more stressed and stretched by the pace of technological life.

We might say, then, that the more that civilized life demands as well as extracts from us, the more we seek relief from these pressures by resorting to informal, personal and quite often intimate modes of expression and intercourse. In this sense, Elias’s work antedates the position which Foucault (1978) would later adopt in his genealogical inquiries into Western sexuality: the ‘natural’ is neither immediately at hand nor especially transparent to either the subject or observer. Self-perception for the historical social theorist, then, stems not from a theory of the mind (Ryle, 1949) but instead from historico-empirical and sociological analyses of the sociogenesis and psychogenesis of modern existence, that is, consciousness. Our perception of what is necessarily natural, barbaric or moral is always already conditioned by the historic figuration of social relations, cultural practices and norms of civility.

Habitus in Comparison

For this reason a comparison of extant forms of civilized behaviour and affect-control with previous (historical) or other (differential) figurations proves useful in identifying important differences and continuities. Elias himself did not undertake any systematic comparative research into civilizing processes, though some insights were proffered in various places. First, in State Formation and Civilization we find Elias positing a quintessential difference between Western society and other high cultures: though ‘there are central organs of some sort in every society,’ the

formation of particularly stable and specialized central organs for large regions is one of the most prominent features of Western history…. But as the differentiation and specialization of social functions have attained a higher level in the West than in any other society on earth—and as they begin to reach this level elsewhere only through an impetus coming from the West—it is in the West that specialized central organs first attain a hitherto unknown degree of stability. (1982: 164)

Regarding revulsion levels associated with handling whole animals and their products at the table and the process of concealment that segregates this unsightly activity from the viewer, it is China that particularly stands out. ‘In earlier Chinese civilization, above all, the concealment of carving behind the scenes was effected much earlier and more radically than in the West’ (Elias, 1978: 121-2, my emphasis). Indeed the complete disappearance of the knife as an everyday implement of civilized consumption in China is, according to Elias’s theory, further testimony to higher emotion control thresholds and their corresponding levels of revulsion. This is no accident, since the fundamental structural characteristics of civilizing processes were obviously present in an imperially immured China: the monopolistic means of control of social and economic life by a scholarly officialdom (‘the mandarins’) who relatively early secured (a) the pacification of feudal warrior-dominated spaces and (b) the ‘means of orientation,’ that is, knowledge production, acquisition and dissemination. These are, it is worth noting, only two of the important dimensions of monopolization which derive from Elias’s four-fold conception of the fundamental logics of social order and development. Each of the following four logics helps determine the power-quanta and figurations of power that shape both a society and personality: monopolization of the means of violence; means of production; means of orientation; and the means of (learning) self-restraint which is of necessity more decentred than the others (Elias, 1987: 230-1). It is rather curious why Elias never expounded a historical comparative sociology—in similar fashion to his great German predecessor Max Weber—that could yield valuable insights into the arguably greater levels of affect-control, concealment and therefore embarrassment and shame thresholds in this civilization, which generally have been overshadowed by a preponderance of academic interest in the so-called ‘triumph of the West’ thesis (I add thesis because I take it to be precisely just that—a thesis with its own antithesis). Elias was right to condemn social scientists for their lapse into a kind of presentism: an ahistorical obsession with present issues and dominant social forms, a tendency perhaps most evident now in the ill-defined area of ‘cultural studies.’ And although he did incorporate a comparative analysis of national differences in his account of the totality of Western society—as well as linguistic conceptual differences—one can nevertheless discern an underlying presentism pervading his own programmatic concerns.

To conclude our discussion of civilizing processes, Elias did provide a more useful comparative dimension to his work in adumbrating the empirical and social basis for certain ‘process universals’ he took to be vital for explaining difference and the distinctly directional quality of scholastic, political, cultural, psychological as well as technological phenomena (1987: 226). Invoking the primacy of the ‘establishment-outsider’ relation, he traced out the historically different sources of social power, closure and civilization, comparing modern with medieval and medieval city-states with those of antiquity. Eschewing the Marxist idea of a ruling class gaining prominence by extracting a surplus from the great labouring masses, he argued the control of magical and mythological powers of signification was either equally or more important for both pre-literate and literate state-societies. Not only ancient Egypt and China but Phoenicia, Persia and Sumer exhibited similar competition between social functionaries for the minds and imaginations of their subjects. Thus the establishments of each of these civilizations consisted of (at least) two rivalrous classes: the warriors and the priests, the former securing power through the palace (and monopolizing the threat of death) and the latter through the temple (monopolizing rites over death and other-worldly representations). Although he accorded a diminished significance to ecclesiastical forces in his magnum opus, Elias later recognized the central role which priests played and how they succeeded in making the temple a centralizing locale for communion with others. If ‘present conditions may be seen more clearly by comparison with conditions in the past,’ he postulated, and ‘if the earliest state-like organization in ancient Sumer… was in fact centred on a temple and headed by priests, it is perhaps not unduly daring to conclude that the social requirements of the state population which priests could satisfy were at this stage much more pressing and imperative’ (Elias, 1987: 236, my emphasis). An incon-gruence between our highly secularized scientific Weltanschauung and the sacromagical or theistic world-picture of the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians elides the historical fact that pre-literate and early city-state survival units were centred on the exalted position of the priesthood—the class of members who possessed the means of sacral dispensation and mediated between worldly and otherworldly affairs. This may put into proper historical perspective today’s rise to prominence of the capitalistic entrepreneur and its spurious concomitant,homo economicus; a creature who for now at least seems to have greatly eroded the sacro-symbolic power of the Vatican and Canterbury. It remains to be seen whether another countervailing thrust will emerge, in a decidedly less New-Age way, out of Jerusalem, Mecca, Beijing or Amritsa to ‘check’ this momentum towards greater commercialization and commodification.

Civilizational Complexes and Analysis

A more polyvalent form of civilizational analysis was developed by an American social theorist (and medieval specialist) who worked across a number of discipline domains, including psychoanalysis, the sociology and philosophy of science and religion, European philosophy and the problem of usury. Benjamin Nelson, an energetic scholar greatly influenced by the work of Weber, Freud, Maine and Durkheim, and based at one time at the New School in New York, was similarly concerned with long-term socio-cultural processes, overcoming the myopia of presentism and working out a frame of reference which encompasses the totality of concrete life and not merely a segmented part of social reality. Rejecting the predominance of partial perspectives clearly visible both within and without the academy—discourses punctuated by ‘social systems,’ nationalistic prejudices and identitarian self-interests—Nelson sought to develop a distinctly civilization-analytic perspective that overcame the above-mentioned shortcomings, including the shortcoming I referred to earlier in relation to Elias’s work, so that we are justified in saying that his historical comparative sociology of science, religion and, more precisely, structures of consciousness comes much closer to Weber’s attempts at developing a comparative sociology of world-civilizations. Eschewing the more static ideal-type theoretic of Weber’s macro-social analysis, as did Elias, Nelson developed a conceptual approach which simultaneously stressed the importance of understanding phenomena in distinctly processual terms yet with special reference to ‘structures of consciousness’ and their corollary ‘symbolic designs.’ Unlike Foucault and more vigorously than Elias, Nelson argued that symbolic designs are fundamental to understanding how both individuals and collectivities orient themselves and form fraternities, that is, Kant’s moral communities. Such fraternal communities, rather than being founded on the more institutional notion of an ‘establishment-outsider’ relation, are conceived instead in terms of the ‘Brother-Other’ distinction. Before we examine this distinction—one derived not from a power-theoretic but from an analysis of constitutive identificatory processes—we need to look first at the constitutive element itself.

Although Nelson had for decades worked on key aspects of civilizational analysis—conscience formation, the emergence of the self, paradigmatic shifts leading to wider circles of moral membership—his idea of a civilizational complex was more properly explicated in the 1970s. In 1971 he translated and published a short essay by ‘mile’ Durkheim and Marcel Mauss left dormant for a half-century and consequently neglected in contemporary analyses of the modern condition. ‘Note on the Notion of Civilization,’ as it was titled, laid the grounds for the need to transcend restrictive conceptual categories that prevented social observers properly identifying processes which were giving rise to phenomena formerly absent from the analysis. Durkheim and Mauss well understood—perhaps from Marx and Weber—the need to reconsider the idea of civilizational analysis: ‘[T]here are… phenomena which do not have such well-defined limits; they pass beyond the political frontiers and extend over less easily determinable spaces’ (1971: 809). The much valorized idea of national territory—augmented by the intervening Cold War years required radical critique, as did also academe’s penchant for specialist area or comparative studies. Although civilizations are ‘susceptible to nationalization,’ without doubt their ‘essential elements are not the product of the state or the [national] people alone’ (Durkheim and Mauss, 1971: 811). Before either the Internet or globalization came to be considered revolutionizing forces, these French theorists recognized the saliency of wider frames of reference that could account for (a) commonalities spanning different linguistic, national or topographical terrains and (b) the expansive or migratory quality of most human activities, not just technological innovations. The supra-nationality of modern science, democracy, art, fashion, travel, languages and urban industrial capitalist life gave evidence to a constitutive unit other than that of ‘society’ or (Parsons’s) ‘social system.’ In other words, modernity is inextricably bound up with civilizational analysis, especially since we know ‘the global’ is too thinly stretched and permeated by tangible cultural lineages and historic ontologies. The most apt term for describing the way certain processes and their attendant effects exceed the nation-state yet embed themselves with the help of what Durkheim and Mauss called ‘frontiéres idéales’ (symbolic frontiers) is civilization. They gave it the following definition: ‘A civilization constitutes a kind of moral milieu encompassing a certain number of nations, each national culture being only a particular form of the whole’ (1971: 811). And symbolic frontiers rather than actual physical frontiers tend to be more effectual in delineating the relativities of similitude (commonality) and alterity (otherness) that underpin human identity.

Nelson appropriated the insights proffered by these path-breaking thinkers to expound upon the argument that only a civilization analytic perspective can properly examine extra-societal phenomena; this includes the increasingly significant realm of inter-civilizational encounters, which Weber, Durkheim and others had failed properly to account for. Such a framework, a civilization-analytic perspective on life, simultaneously lays claim to the significance of national and regional particularisms, civilizational phenomena and cultural changes or hybridity resulting from inter-civilizational collisions and exchanges. This an important contribution of Nelson’s to the body of historical-social research concerned not only with acceptable forms of behaviour or state formation (Elias) but also with processes of identity formation that incorporate cultural renovations and different structures of consciousness. The notion of a complex signifies an intricate set of interdependent determinants, that is, processes generally predisposed towards high mobility but nevertheless co-determined by historically contingent degrees of closure. But Nelson cautions us: ‘[T]here is no warrrant for confining ‘civilization’ to one set of constructs, to one sort of fabric’ (1981b: 92). Stressing the need to maintain a pluralistic framework of analysis, he posited that civilizational complexes based on their ‘diverse geometries’—manifest a number of patternings: configurations of ‘coordinates defining cultural ontologies, epistemologies, and logics; directive systems, dramatic designs, and sociopolitical frameworks; and technologies of different sorts symbolic as well as material’ (1981b: 92). And since Nelson was particularly interested in accounting for modes of ‘spiritual direction’ for example, directive systems of regulation of conscience, casuistry and the cure of souls he linked structures of consciousness to these all-important geometries.

Let us first examine what these geometries of ontology, epistemology, rationales and symbolic designs consist of and then go on to consider structures of consciousness. First, in order to understand the contemporary constellation of ‘scientific management, efficiency engineering, time-and-motion’ and scientific technocultural revolutions, we need to look at how human beings make sense of their ever-changing world(s) and rationalize divergent value schemas (Nelson, 1981c: 69). Contemporary schemas of value orientation and reasoning, so-called rationales, evince certain fundamental continuities with systems of spiritual direction, symbolic designs and rationales of intellectual interrogation which preceded the scientific revolution(s) of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But such rationales also gave impetus to the theological juridico-political rupture that allowed the Reformationists—culminating with Martin Luther—to announce the arrival of the modern self. Thus much earlier than Foucault’s birth of the penitentiary or his subsequent work on the confessional as an exemplar of technologies of the self, Nelson had already apprehended the great import of spiritual technologies of the self for the formation of conscience and thus moral self-images. Late modern (hyper-)individuated selves, it can be said, exhibit a propensity to extend further their self-image according to accessible logics of moral decision and modalities of rational adjudication or interrogation juridical, justificatory, evidential. Key cultural innovations in and through axial institutions of society and logics of scientific inquiry preceding the (first) Renaissance and Reformation flowed from what Nelson called the ‘medieval orchestration of conscience, casuistry and the cure of souls’ (1981d: 52). This is an important point in Nelson’s construction of a civilization-analytic perspective as it points to the significance of (a) symbolic and spiritual technologies of the self and (b) ‘universes of discourse’ that embody rationale structures which encompass our various modes of ‘expression, existence and experience.’ The latter three existentio-philosophical concepts relate to the centrality of discourse, existents and the formative trace of experiences articulated within modalities of making and acting. However, Nelson argued it was impossible to conceive of each of these important phenomena separate from rationale structures, which he described as ‘structures of reasons, explanations, procedures establishing requirements in respect to truth, legality, virtue, fittingness and other directive norms’ (1981c: 70). Now the above-mentioned medieval technologies of the self, which proved immensely significant for both the Cartesian cogito and Kant’s ‘Copernican revolution,’ are a case in point in how individuals understood their conduct in relation to, in the first instance, religious procedures and directives regarding the states of souls. In the second instance, individuals understood their conduct increasingly according to more rationalistic matrices of criteria, namely logics of moral decision and truth establishment. The regiment of right conduct, on the one hand, and determination of certitude, on the other, began to undergo a decisive shift of the kind that would give rise to: an individuated sovereign or self over moral decisions within the sphere of moral regulation; and within the sphere of knowledge, a post-Aristotelian science of nature that eventually led to a decentring of Christendom’s geocentric world-picture.

Finally the pertinence of structures of consciousness for civilizational analysis has become apparent. This shift away from a prescribed, traditional modus operandi of the self—symbolised by the presence of acurator animarum represents an important insight into how consciousness itself undergoes a certain development: a definitive transmogrification integral to our being. When human beings are subject to changes which they themselves have instigated, as Marx eloquently observed in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1954), we see not only institutions and technologies undergoing change but also existing forms of consciousness, as Hegel previously showed. Nelson argues that rationale structures and structures of consciousness constitute configurations of coordinates defining cultural ontologies, epistemologies and logics which, conversely, also determine the structures of rationales and consciousness themselves. Thus particular structures of consciousness, that is, the sacromagical or rational types, possess their own sui generis force in human history; their irreducibility to bourgeois or material forces means that something quite distinctive occurred when moral theology, for instance, was usurped by a natural theology of sorts. When, for example, Aristotle was first introduced to students of Oxford and Paris universities or Galileo some three centuries later disclosed his new cosmology to the Church authorities, we can observe a faith structure of consciousness beginning to move toward ‘the rationalization of the contents of faith; that is, the systematic analysis of the contents of and evidences for faith’ (Nelson, 1981b: 94). Revisiting Weber’s basic thesis outlined in his Collected Essays in the Sociology of Religion (cf. Weber, 1993), Nelson maintained that notable changes in structures of consciousness were associated with particular forms of fraternal association: the city, religious sects, ‘brotherhoods’ of various kinds and wider universes of discourse (for example, Latin Christendom). A collective conscience, for instance, represents what Nelson called a sacromagical structure of consciousness, whereby ‘collective representations prevail and affirm the absolute authority of magical-prescriptive structures which are fulfilled by all groups without notable deviation’ (1981b: 93). The civilizations of Judaism, Confucian China and the Hindus are exemplars of this type of consciousness. The second order, faith structures, are found in phases of diverse religions and represented by a ‘transmoral consciousness, a conscience beyond good and evil’ generally this type of consciousness is strongly manifested in ‘mystical acosmic, mystical millenarian, mystic militaristic sects and inner worldly mystical groups’ for example, Gnostics, Sufis (1981b: 95). The ‘inner illumination’ or the lighting up of the soul through the meditative contemplation of Christ is an instance of such a structure of consciousness, exemplified by the early neo-Platonists and Bernard of Clairvaux. The gradual development of a form of natural as against moral theology—theology itself representing a kind of systematic hermeneutical science of the Word—signified how this peculiar type of consciousness was already pregnant with the possibility of a nascent rationalistic structure of consciousness. Therein Nelson’s type of civilizational analysis points us in the direction of changes to the conscience structure of an illuminist like Bonaventura to, say, that of an Abelard, whose conscience was underlined by a more Aristotelian-like logic of moral decision. Nelson’s philosophy of the vicissitudes of consciousness, however, decidedly rejects any neo-evolutionary or linear developmental logic of history. Contra Habermas and closer perhaps to the genealogist Michel Foucault, Nelson argued: ‘The history of the structures of consciousness or conscience is neither continuous nor consecutive,’ nor is there any consecutive or continuous understanding or awareness of man as an agent in all modalities of his personhood and existence, (1981f: 217).

Thus thrusts toward greater rationalization or universalization are neither inevitable nor over-determined. What the above instance exemplifies rather—in a decidedly depth historical fashion—is the strong link between the existence of a ‘transmoral conscience’ in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and the move toward wider spheres of fraternization, discourse and intellectual engagement. In other words, as a student of medieval culture, and in particular of its perturbations regarding the use of usury, Nelson was able to identify the important role of the transcendental self (as circumscribed by a faith structure of consciousness) in ushering in a universality of types that would find expression in ‘rationalized structures of consciousness’ (1981b: 96). The latter harbours a form of universality essentially because it sustains ‘terms of discourse [which] are absolutely general and increasingly available through formalization into abstract languages which are technical… and open to mathematical formulation at one or another level of abstraction’ (1981b: 96). And perhaps this is why we moderns today intuitively feel tied to a transcendentalism of sorts which contemporary rationality nevertheless struggles to explain within its own terms. Part of the great difficulty in determining the exact grounding of such a transcendental self is the apparent demise in recognition of rationales and their nomoi; new social movements since at least the 1920s, coupled with the cataclysmic epoché of the twentieth century, have reignited the scepticism of old concerning the ‘myth of the objective consciousness’ (1981b: 103). Nelson himself expressed some doubt whether the ‘remaining years of the twentieth century will witness an encouragement of other prerequisites of civilization, above all, widely dispersed rights to join together voluntarily for mutual benefit in cultural and associational purposes; freedom of conscience and consciousness; acknowledgement of answer-ability to universal rationales’ (1981b: 105). Despite his repudiation of a Nietzschean cultural pessimism, Nelson, it could be argued, also fell susceptible to a kind of underestimation—a danger intrinsic to historical consciousness itself—of the symbolic power invested in civilizational complexes, their axial institutions and existents (that is, subjects). For in many regards, the last twenty-five years have witnessed a further extension and deepening out of a number of human rights previously only formally ratified by the Geneva Convention and now made manifest through the democratization of various spheres of social life, contrariwise to the colonization thesis.

Habitus in Comparative Perspective

Our discussion now turns to Nelson’s contribution to comparative historical social analysis and then briefly to Samuel Eisenstadt’s contribution to the field. We have already seen how within Nelson’s schema civilizational analysis follows the logic that there are civilizational complexes which possess degrees of social closure but are essentially porous; that is, symbolic frontiers not iron curtains form and shape their identity. Moreover, it will be recalled that inter-civilizational encounters form an integral part of the constitutive process of such complexes; complexes therefore are never hermetically sealed objects of analysis. Thus it is no accident that in Nelson’s account of modernity we find the West referred to as ‘the West’ or the “so-called West”/or ‘East.’ Static conceptions of regional cultures or political communities are abjured. This is not to discount the reality of diverse forms of exclusion; exclusion practices, however, are just as evident within as without complex political societies. The point rather is that these more complex configurations of human association have never been Robinson Crusoe existences: socio-cultural formations of every kind have known (and exhibited) the imperative to learn from neighbours, enemies or ‘barbarians.’ Hence, the comparative analysis of structured social relations and associations of necessity is bound up with a distinctly processual account of civilizational formations. Others subsequently have shown similar epistemic reserve regarding the efficacy of the ideal-type methodology and, similarly, the evident penchant within the social sciences (at least before globalism) for static or statist models of social life (cf. Mann, 1986).

Although Max Weber previously set out to explain the uniqueness of the West, namely its rationalism, he had, according to Nelson, misplaced his conceptual emphasis. The analytical emphasis should rather have been why paradigmatic shifts were not sufficiently taken up by other equally if not more advanced civilizations such as China and Islam. Whilst maintaining a polyvalence with regard to the abundantly diverse forms of science and religious affiliation in history, Nelson at the same time was astutely aware of the need for theoreticians (or civilizational analysts) to be cognizant of the requirement to explain ascendencies, descendencies as well as morphological changes in civilizational complexes. Leaving aside the important dimension of inter-civilizational processes and elements, it becomes evident the concern here is less with the triumphalism of Western culture and more with providing a forensic analysis of how rationales and structures of consciousness in divergent cultural geometries have given force to different understandings cultural ontologies) and knowing (sciencing). In this context Nelson examined the morphology of Islamic science and, through a close analysis of Joseph Needham’s (1959) multi-voluminous work on Chinese science and civilization, medieval China as well. Consistent with the argument concerning shifting balances in the intellectual-cultural ascendencies of diverse complex societies, he observed that whereas medieval China and Islam had overtaken the Occident in astronomy, hydrology, optics, navigation, printing, chemistry and classical (Greek) learning, they began to decline comparatively about the time of Galileo. The expulsion from Spain and Austria of Islamic peoples by the mid-seventeenth century sealed this world-historical image. Nevertheless, why and how did ‘the Franks’ eventually overcome their comparatively languid state to surpass those Others who had bestowed them with the examination system, the zero, gunpowder and copies of Aristotle and other Greek texts? The explanation is dual: first, they benefited greatly from their interaction and engagement with Islam and China, not to mention New World civilizations; second, through the transvaluation of other-worldly asceticism partly due to the centrality of inner worldly asceticism, coupled with the rupture of ‘invidious dualisms’ such as the Brother-Other owing to the vital presence of universalities of thought and fraternization. Civilizations of Asia did not, for specific sociopolitical historical reasons, generate the conditions to sustain either the city as we commonly understand it today or the modern university. In other critical respects, however, China was ripe for a cognate revolution in ontological frames: the absence of slave labour caused less suspicion of the utility of inventions; Taoist precepts regarding Nature, whilst anti-nomothetic in form, assisted in the development of medical, alchemical and physical sciences; and the achievement of a high degree of ethical rationalism, as Weber had already alluded to, was historically surpassed only by the irrationalism of Protestant sects which later proved fateful for both the New World and Europe. That is, the Protestant ethic (of industrial capitalism) and Newton’s physical laws of Nature became a potent, transformative amalgam that eventually would exceed even the closures of European society. The so-called ‘rationalization’ of structures of consciousness was nevertheless inhibited by constraints on both social intercourse—intensive yet exclusionary brotherhoods—and intellectual interrogation, fraternal communities of universal discourse. Nelson (1976) referred to this logic as his ‘double-dialectic processes.’

Why the more advanced Arabs did not make the next step forward to, say, Newton or Galilean physics was due not to some shortfall in their mentalité or to flawed Islamic theological doctrine but rather to the dominance of the ulama. This caste of religio-intellectual figures ‘never’ achieved the degree of rationalization which was achieved in Roman-Canonical jurisprudence; the various schools of Muslim law continued to be based upon the hadith (‘tradition’)’ (Nelson, 1981b: 100). It is the historical sociologist and not the theologian or area-specialist, in other words, who can best explain why modern notions of science or discourse or political organization are linked to peculiar breakthroughs within a particular civilizational genealogy; a genealogy, Nelson assiduously reminds us, which itself embodies a number of breakthroughs achieved by the Other—formerly the ‘barbarian’ beyond the symbolic frontier of our ‘civilization.’

Eisenstadt has undertaken a similar set of inquiries into the formative role of world religions and their corresponding ‘Axial civilizations.’ Undertaking historical-sociological investigations not dissimilar to Weber or Nelson, Eisenstadt, too, remains alert to the need to adopt analytic frames which defy the lures of presentism and yet appreciate the perspectivism long-term processes afford us. His point of departure is the influential work of Karl Jaspers on the world-historical significance of ‘Axial-age civilizations’ and their decisive breakthroughs (see Eisenstadt, 1986a). Late modern societies are marked by many of the key elements and cosmological understandings of Axial-age civilizations, which carry and transmit through their own lineages traces of non-Axial and pre-Axial civilizations as well (Eisenstadt, 2000). What unifies these otherwise diverse socio-cultural formations is their revolutionary breakthrough to a wider, collective consciousness or identity—a civilizational identity—based upon ‘the emergence and institutionalization of new basic ontological metaphysical conceptions of a chasm between transcendental and mundane orders’ (Eisenstadt, 2000: 4). Whilst not inferring a lack of internal differentiation, this means that such complexes build identities which incorporate tensions (or conflicts) between ontologies which are instantiated by a cosmological vision and others by this-worldly religious ethics. In this case, the comparative analysis of civilizational structures refers us simultaneously to the common presence of a transcendental metaphysics of being or arche (origin, order) and a multiplicity of institutional forms within which the class of intellectuals, or ‘spiritual directors’ broadly conceived, promulgate the cosmological vision of a transmundane world and its concomitant structure(s) of consciousness, that is, sacro, faith, rational or syncretic. Comparison, in other words, need not necessarily be teleological; the differential and developmental dimensions are both important aspects of theoretical analysis which do not per se embody deterministic, linear lines of development.

Under the category of similitude, Eisenstadt finds that China in one significant respect shared a common world-view orientation to the Axial-age civilizations of the east Mediterranean sphere. Diverging from its Hinduist and Buddist counterparts, China developed a very strong this-worldly conception of ‘salvation’ which placed central emphasis on the social and political orders as the sites and foci of transcendental visions similar to those of ancient Greek and Hellenistic civilizations. It developed significant capacities for the ‘rational’ resolution of human or ethical dilemmas (that is, Confucianism and neo-Confucianism) in a fashion akin to those of ancient Greece and Rome (Eisenstadt, 1986a). This obviated the need for deistic objectivations and resolutions of existential-soteriological crises of the kind which came to define monotheistic civilizations as well as the other-worldly (non-deistic) oriented Hinduist and Buddist civilizations. In the antithetical mode, China also diverged from Greece and Rome in its mundane ‘secular’ orientation in the following ways: it more fully articulated the paradox of embodying a transcendental vision whilst resorting to a worldly conception of how to bridge these world-orders as result of acquiring an imperial form; it succeeded more forcefully than either Greek or Hellenistic civilizations in stressing the ‘proper performance of worldly duties and activities within the existing social frameworks… as the ultimate criterion of the resolution of the tension between the transcendental and mundane order and of individual responsibility’ it had very tightly interwoven the realms of speculative and political life, as exemplified by the Confucian literati; and, finally, China’s ‘special conception of its resolution’ of the tension between world renunciation and affirmation was decidedly marked by a ‘strong semi-sanctification of the imperial order’ that was absent in the (ancient) Mediterranean cases (Eisenstadt, 1986b: 292-3). In Chapter 15 of this volume, Arnason examines further the import of Asian civilizations and therefore provides a useful adjunct to our brief comparative discussion here.

Returning to our point concerning similitude, Eisenstadt pursues a strong institutional inquiry into the sui generis nature of the construction of collective identities; what brings people together into a common sense of belonging—ultimately predicated upon boundaries, trust and solidarity—as against what differentiates or estranges members of the human race. Distinct ‘codes or schemata,’ it is argued, fundamentally shape the construction of such collective identities because ontological premises regarding social order affect the delineation of ‘major arenas of social interaction and the structures of preferences’ (Eisenstadt, 1998: 232). These major codes enable collective identities to be constructed and, drawing on the work of Edward Shils, Clifford Geertz and others, are determined to be primordiality, civility and sacredness or transcendence. The seemingly natural quality of boundaries that demarcate member from outsider owes to the primordiality of codes centred upon kinship, generation, gender, language, race and territory. Second, civic codes embody rules which form the core of communal identities: familiarity with implicit and explicit rules of conduct, traditions and social routines defines the boundary of a given collectivity (1998: 232). Finally, the transcendent code links the collective subject with a relation to the ‘realm of the sacred and the sublime, be it defined as God or Reason, Progress or Rationality’ (1998: 232). This major code of identification is particularly manifest in the Axial-age religions, pace Jaspers and Weber, which form a crucial part of Eisenstadt’s general theoretical concerns with elites and institutional clusterings as key determinants of comparative sociologico-civilizational analysis. Sacredness, as with Durkheim, Weber and Nelson, infuses both the civic and primordial codes. It is admitted, nevertheless, that each of these three codes is an ideal-type; and as analytic-universals they undergird Eisenstadt’s otherwise heterogeneous conception of civilizational structures and collective identities. Now, whilst it may be possible to discern how temporal instantiation produces a great degree of variance in the way boundaries or other-worldly cosmologies operate in people’s lives, this seems to be decidedly divorced from any understanding of processes per se. In a critical vein, we might say the analyst is somehow endowed with the ability to identify—in quite objectivistic ways the historical and social differences and essences of particular objects/subjects of analysis without ever needing to discern the process(es) from which their definitive morphology or metamorphosis emerged. So whilst Eisenstadt is correct in wishing to salvage the analytics of civilizational analysis from relegation to epiphenomenal status, the virtue of an autonomous logic of development comes at the cost of adopting a problematic ideal-typical framework of analysis which others such as Elias, Nelson and recent theoretical physicists have eschewed. Hence, a historical, comparative and civilization analytic appears most prospectful as a way to proceed until at least one encounters particular methodological and theoretical shortcomings.


To what end does historical sociology take aim if it is not that which pertains to fundamental questions to do with the nature of social organization within the context of shifting frameworks of time and space? If it is to avoid erroneously declaring social forms definitive of our present understanding of human society and morals as immutable, social theory will of necessity need to be (a) historically oriented and (b) processual in its analytic focus. This is vital in the present context of scholarly investigation because of two marked developments, one within the academy and the other within the popular idiom. There is, first, a tendency to shy away from these important characteristics of civilization theory under the prevailing pressure to publish for the simple professional reason of preserving one’s position within the academy. The second force to be reckoned with is the apparent disenchantment with the (systematic) study of the historicity of our civilizational forms in Western societies, including amongst many university humanities students. Indeed a certain nexus has formed between these two forces: academicians who work in more contemporaneous fields of study have come to a lesser or greater extent to embrace the quasi-positivistic penchant for ‘telling it as it is’ and turning social reality into foundation-less, genos-free instances of the knowing of (present) facts—the facticity of cultural idoms. In this sense a civilization-analytic perspective has the possibility of redeeming that which the ‘forgetfulness of Being,’ to use Heidegger’s language, has rendered oblivous. An exemplification of this point may, ironically, be gleaned from that fontal which inspired the emergence of Derridean decon-struction: the Talmudic and Cabbalistic insights of Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy. Levinas’s unique kind of post-Heideggarian ‘first philosophy’ is a philosophy that challenges the egoism of our contemporary cultural milieu, arguing for the instantiation of the Other as the moral fulcrum of our very existence. Yet this post-existentialist philosophical outlook finally draws its sustenance from a long-standing tradition which popular commodified culture—and its attendant standardizing logic—appears to override with triumphant arrogance, claiming the ‘end of ideology,’ the ‘death of Man’ and, most spuriously of all, the illusion of the end of what I call ‘civil genealogy.’ This kind of genealogy recognizes the indispensability of what Hans Gadamer understood as linguistic communities bound by a particular linguistic tradition that trajects its own horizons of meaning. Civil genealogy traces the lineages which disseminate (spatial) and defer (temporal) rationale structures, universes of discourse and cultural ontologies (with their attendant triad of codes, pace Eisenstadt) through particular configurations of structures of consciousness which convey self-understandings that are not bereft of contradictions. The task before historical sociology is not only to identify new manifestations of what Nietzsche described as ‘decadence’—devaluation of all noble values or valorization of destructive nihilistic forces in the name of democracy—but also to take up with great vigour a problematization of morals formative of modern disciplined existence. Without undertaking some form of ‘civil genealogy,’ as I have put it, historical sociology will continue to omit the significance that morals and values—normative structures generally—have for the human being who becomes what s/he is.

That is to say, its long-standing structural-functional systemic bias needs to come under strong scrutiny, as does also its theoretical penchant for disclosing the historical ‘necessity’ of modern institutions and practices. When it fully extirpates its classical Eurocentric orientations, historical sociology will have much to offer—both intellectuals and technocrats—by exceeding the limitations of postcolonial theory. And there are good reasons to believe not only that civilization theory can fill this void—the aporia of ‘non-European’ autarkeia but also that it could better discern the universalities and particularities of peoples, customs and morals in different parts of the globe without having to resort to reductionist methodologies which unnecessarily privilege one category (for example, colonialism) of analysis over all others. What is more, as nature has once again become a necessary concern for the human species, civilization theory—with its constant focus on the realms of nature—may prove more efficacious in challenging humanist modernization presuppositions by reconcep-tualizing the conquestive enslavement of Nature that traditionally was assumed to be integral to the civilizing process—the taming of the Wild Man. Indeed the rapacious expropriation of nature—ordinarily considered sacrosanct by classical historians of civilizations—has now become, in its new biogenetical guise, something pivotal to the specific transformation(s) which human beings themselves will radically undergo, not to mention non-human species as well—a phenomenon less amenable to Elias’s theoretic of civilizing processes. So in broad terms, broader than the mainstay of historical sociology thus far, civilization theory (encompassive of civil genealogy) has the capacity to bring in to full view the genealogy of the ethical subject that is now the fulcrum of modern democratized cultures, and the likely changes in its corporeal constitution it will undergo in this twenty-first century as a result of both an intensive scientific-technological civilization and an ever-present biopolitics ensuing from the voice of a demos that contrarily also seeks the good life through unconscious inauthenticity.