The Trouble with “Uncivilization”

There is a tremendous lurking flaw in any initiative that frames itself as a negative. We know that, yet we struggle with finding a framework, and a simple title for it, that denotes the activities around weening our attention from the grip of civilization without resorting to this awkward and negative term, Uncivilization. This may be civilization’s ultimate weapon! Our difficulty here is a sign of its hegemony over our awareness. We’re left in the position of that old parlor trick, “For the next five minutes DON’T think of the word Rhinoceros!” When our fate lies in our ability to aim our attention, keeping what we want to avoid within the name of our effort is bound to be deeply problematic.

This is more than just a “Gotcha!” trick of semantics. We hit what we aim for. And as all those skid-marks running up to lone trees and utility poles attest, focusing our attention even in the negative will not prevent us from honing in on precisely what we we so strenuously want to avoid. “Oh! God! Don’t hit that tree! Don’t hit that Tree!” Does not work. Looking calmly at any part of the empty field will take you past the obstacle. It was only a problem because of our focus and the way attention works.

I wish I could say I’ve begun this post with a “substitute” in mind. That would be nice. Instead, I’d like to air out the question and see what comes up. Focusing briefly on a fatal flaw in our technique may be useful, if it leads to changing our practices at some point. It works in learning to drive or to fly….

I spent a decade immersing myself in virtual reality. There were two major fields out there. One was CAD. I used CAD to explore boat design. It was a tool to speed up the analytic loop of a design iteration from about once a week to under five minutes. I’ve likened the difference to that between watching a tree grow in real time and watching one grow with the aid of time-lapse photography. In the first case change is too slow for us to apprehend it intuitively and be able to internalize insights on the dynamics of tree growth. In the latter case, we can “see” the change within our customary time-scales and our apprehension is direct, physical, and visceral, as well as intellectual. For me this gave me the equivalent of decades of design iteration experience in a few short years. It helped hone my ability to look at a design and have judgments come to me that were informed by that experience and its effects on my intuition.

This was a great boon, but it did come at a cost. Throughout that period all of the other aspects of boat design were accomplished as if inside a glass-fronted box wearing the clumsiest of gloves – like a nuclear, or infectious disease, researcher working remotely in a sealed chamber. I had to suppress all of my direct physical and visceral experience that had fed my design practices and make discreet and deliberate modifications to fit my “head” inside that glass box. In the end, it’s done. There were benefits from the overall experience. Perhaps the greatest one was the insights it gave me into the limitations of virtual worlds. As Krishnamurti put it so long ago – in the late eighties, if I had heard of him then, it might have saved me a lot of trouble! – Our brains are limited by a capacious but finite memory. If we limit ourselves to only utilizing our brains from within the limits of our conditioning, memory, then we are also limited. In this way we are like a computer. Everything that a processor can work on had to be put into its memory as programming. That programming, comparable to our conditioning, and the memory space it resides in, is limited, much more limited even than our brains. If we open ourselves to be able to access Mind, then we are not limited. This is how creativity works, it is the moving beyond the limits of conditioning.

That was crudely paraphrased. Besides the incredibly profound and liberating implications of his insight it shows why virtual realities will always be limited and why throughout the whole period of Moore’s Law’s validity we repeated the process of being struck by the new possibilities inherent in increased computational power only to rather quickly, almost exponentially, butt heads with the limitations of the latest breakthrough and be tapping our feet impatiently waiting for the next doubling to occur. As with any addicts, we failed to see the diminishing returns as we continued to invest our lives and our attention on these shiny glass screens.

The other field of virtual reality was flight simulation. I was always fascinated by flight. I grew up in the last heyday of the glamor of flying. I crossed the Atlantic in a Super-G Constellation as a boy…. My options for actual piloting were limited and diminishing as age and lack of funds closed in on me. From my first exposure to crude flight simulators in the early nineties I was enthralled. Here was a way to act on my desire to fly that seemed not to hold any significant physical risk, and was in relative terms ridiculously cheap! At the risk of carpal-tunnel syndrome, and at the cost of updating hardware and software every 18 months, I could feed my vocation and relish in an immersion in my avocation of flight. In the end, through a twist of serendipity this enormous “time-waster” led to my one official corporate job, five years of high salaries and a front row seat at the dysfunctional table of endless weekly company meetings. As with my time in CAD, I can’t regret this either. It set the stage for much of what I’m doing now. It gave me access to the “Belly of the Beast” and allowed me to channel some of my shadows into a virtual fate instead of an actual one, or so I hope! At least I’m assured that my yearning for flight has only led me to crash thousands of times virtually instead of just that once in reality. Pacé John Denver!

At a certain point, actually quite early on, I realized that my compulsion to fly was as a way to act out my intense yearning to break out of the impasse, the “stall” of my life. I’d gone from a promising youngster to a perennially youthful potential late-bloomer, but at thirty, at forty, I still felt caught, trapped by double-binds and my own unresolved conflicts. I was stalled. Flight is all about coming unstuck and soaring. We learn to handle the conditions that lead to catastrophic stalls, we even learn to make controlled stalls and recover. From within the framework of a command-and-control mentality, flight training, the practice of flying a plane, is the ultimate arena for wresting control from the edge of chaos. We speak of running at the edge of the envelope, the locations surrounding an aircraft and pilot’s performance parameters where the predictable suddenly and without warning goes pear-shaped with potentially dire consequences. This is the ultimate mystique of the will-to-control. It’s no wonder the test-pilot, the fighter-pilot is the hero of technocrats everywhere.

Ultimately this obsession led me to a close working relationship with an actual living breathing test/fighter pilot. Our collaboration has been a high point in my professional life, and a relationship I still cherish. Seeing the humanity behind the legend has been instrumental in my personal disillusionment. To see the way all of that effort, striving, and accomplishment leaves such a person no better able to handle life than anyone else. Just look at John Boyd‘s life to see the ultimate example of this. The way all of that talent, genius even, was trapped by the framework he helped demolish but was never able to escape.

I’m not sure where this essay off into virtual reality leaves us on the topic of finding a positive way to frame the effort to break free of civilization’s grasp by taking a first step of couching our efforts under a name that isn’t just a reflection of what we are working to avoid. Perhaps that’s just it. In flight training there is a concept of flying as deeply into the crash as possible. If we have had a catastrophic failure a pilot trains to be able to maintain focus on that narrowing window of possibility and not giving up until that window is closed for them by death or coming to rest on the ground. This exercise is a great metaphor for our current situation. It is a highly technologized version of what uncivilized creatures do all of the time. Take any wild animal. They will work with what they have available to the extent possible until death removes them from the struggle. They don’t tend to “over-think” it, or to get caught up in regrets of what “could have been.” If we unwrap this piloting practice we have a great example of the kind of behavior and practices that would feed our endeavor as we face collapse on so many levels.

The greatest lesson of this practice is to focus on what we still have. Not on regrets, or on our “obstacles.” Regrets only cloud our attention and focusing on obstacles draws us to them – it’s an actual physical case of what Jung is referring to when he says that what we leave unexamined in our shadow world manifests itself in the real world as fate. That may seem at first blush counter-intuitive. After all, we ARE giving these obstacles our attention, that’s the problem. Let’s look a little deeper. When we focus our attention on what will kill us – the ultimate distillation of the bargains of civilization: avoid death, seek power and security, find a safe-haven in eternity – we are avoiding the fear of death that is the shadow that is going to be made manifest. Seeking to avoid death, we ensure its prompt arrival. Suspending this drama, and flying as deeply into the crash as we can, opens our attention to what is possible while at the same time giving us the gift of truly living in the moment.

Sorry, a new name still hasn’t popped out of the aether, but a clue as to how to proceed has made itself apparent. To walk away from civilization and its bargains to avoid death is to deny it our attention. At the point where we cease to be aware of civilization’s traps and barriers because we have focused our attention on the slivers and scraps of life available to us, we will have reached a point where we are no longer simply reflecting a nemesis, but living within a new framework. At that point, a name may or may not bubble up. After all, the names we have for past mental constructs tended only to appear in hindsight. No one in 1495 was going around asking their neighbors how they were enjoying the Renaissance so far.

Perhaps, in the meantime we should just call what we’re doing “Fred!” After all, while we are thinking Fred, we’re not likely to think about Rhinoceros!

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6 thoughts on “The Trouble with “Uncivilization”

  1. Yes, you and Lakoff both. (Lakoff of the Don’t think of an elephant.)

    How might we understand the term ‘uncivilization’? Some conceptual disentangling to follow.

    1.) Deconstructively. Un-civilization connotes our unwitting involvement in but desire to be free from this life-world we call civilization. (I’m not a deconstructionist. I’m only doing some philosophical work here.)

    2.) Negative dialectically. Some 1st & 3rd generation Frankfurt Schoolers, looking to avoid the horrors of utopianism, suggest we begin with the early Marx’s statement that we must get rid of human degradation, humiliation, and the like whenever it occurs. We *start with* the negative and, in virtue of removing the negative, we move (this is called determinate negation) toward the better. Uncivilization, on this construal, would draw our attention to what must be gotten rid of and then, by getting rid of it, we’d be somewhere else, somewhere better. (I’m not a negative dialectician, but I’ve written about Adorno, “Adorno and the Question of Metaphysics,” New Essays on the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.)

    3.) Poetically. The name ‘uncivilization’ is, by my ear, actually quite beautiful and evocative. I find it hard to believe that the ‘dark mountain project movement’ would have gotten under way had it not been for the sonorous quality of the manifesto and for the power of the language. ‘Uncivilization’ is doing its affective or perlocutionary work. (On “perlocutionary,” see J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words.)

    4.) Historically. When are Dougald and Paul marking off the origin of civilization? 10,000 years ago with the birth of agriculture (wheat, maize, rice)? 250-odd years ago with the birth of industrialization? And so on.

    5.) Philosophically. Here are where my reservations lie. ‘Civilization’ is a polysemantic concept packed into which is a variety of diverse traditions. Two simple examples. One, a tea ceremony. This seems to me to qualify as a case of civilization. And yet I wouldn’t want to say that it’s a bad thing. Two, a garden. In what sense is this not cultivated? And wouldn’t we want to say that something cultivated is also, in a sense of the word yet to be defined, civilized? I’m with John Armstrong who, in his book In Search of Civilization, has many good things do say about different aspects of what we would intuitively call civilization.

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    1. Andrew,

      Great! This is just the kind of exchange I’ve been looking for! See my post, Gort barada nikto!

      I do see how this could be an implied, Hell!, a direct critique of Dark Mountain’s use of Uncivilization. While I acknowledge that my criticisms will reflect on them and that project, I was directly criticizing my own use of the term and my reservations around using it and what it might mean to find another way of referring to a concept I share broadly with Dark Mountain, but which to me has taken on a distinct flavor that I don’t presume to put off onto anyone else.

      I agree that the term as they’ve used it has tremendous poetical appeal. I still maintain that our, my, reliance on the term is a sign that I have not found a more direct way of presenting what I perceive might be out there in the clear air free of all that I subsume under the term civilized.

      To get to your last point, this one is tremendously interesting. I have a hunch that in unpacking these uses of cultivated, cultured, even civil, and civilized; we may get to the heart of the kind of disillusionment I’ve been after. In part this has to do with following the trail of ritual back say 15,000 years to get well clear of any demarcation that might be termed the start of civilization! It could also be approached by looking at rituals in any age that are not tied up with cults of death, power, and a longing after eternity. My guess is that the tea ceremony, one I have a great affection for also, would fall clear of that fault. Although its entanglement with issues of superiority and glamor and envy would have been ways in which civilization, in my own capricious understanding of the term, would have attached to it like scar-tissue or phagocytes to neutralize its subversive inner qualities.

      Our intuition is completely conditioned by our history as the products of civilization. It’s why we are finding that those who have been most successful in meeting civilization’s requirements are now hopeless at finding a way forward. Those of us marginal cases have had more experience of challenging our received wisdom and withholding judgement, cultivating, if you will, our negative capabilities. Just because a good thing has been taken to be part of civilization don’t make it so. In most cases I’ve looked more deeply into it’s been the other way. The patterns of behavior and habits of mind we generally refer to as civilization have been good at taking credit and passing on blame with the same kind of wondrously cheeky reversals of the truth now so visible and popular among right-wing spokespersons, pundits, and politicians. There was conflict before civilization, but not war, certainly not ecocidal war. There is a certain modicum of health for a small fraction of us with civilization, but at what cost to the totality of life, and how does it compare to the sense of integration into a working World that was lost to achieve it? More directly are any of us truly healthier, in mind as well as body, living in an insane culture compared to those who existed before?

      In all, it’s tempting to get caught-up in tit-for-tat, “This is what Civilization has done to me!” That’s just another way in which it holds sway by dominating our attention. I still hold that our attention is better spent in the clear as much as we can focus on the clear, while, we still have any room to maneuver.

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  2. […] Out of this may come the possibility of reaching some form or forms of adaptation and accommodation to the forces unleashed by unrestrained Technique and the pursuit of limitless Power. The difference to be measured as a choice between auguring in at full power and flying into the crash. […]

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