Terry Eagleton has an odd piece in the Guardian today on the theme of a supposed contemporary conflict between culture and civilisation. I can't help thinking that there is a subtext, the continuation of his spat with Martin Amis by other means. He writes:
These days the conflict between civilisation and barbarism has taken an ominous turn. We face a conflict between civilisation and culture, which used to be on the same side. Civilisation means rational reflection, material wellbeing, individual autonomy and ironic self-doubt; culture means a form of life that is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective and arational. It is no surprise, then, to find that we have civilisation whereas they have culture. Culture is the new barbarism. The contrast between west and east is being mapped on a new axis.
Civilisation is "ironic self-doubt" and culture is "unreflective"? Can't we have doubt without irony or a reflective culture? Where do these definitions come from? Is there no Western culture or Eastern civilisation? It is all very puzzling. Another weird aspect of the piece, apart from these arbitrary definitions, is that, as a Marxist, Eagleton seems to disassociate contemporary conflict from material conditions and place it in an idealist framework of, in my view, a false dichotomy between culture and civilisation.
The trouble is that there are real conflicts here. Culture might be 'collective' and 'customary' but it can also be brutal, oppressive and violent. And when it morphs into political movements, it can be a vehicle for the interests of powerful groups in society. But, for Eagleton, it is civilisation that is the violent one.
Civilisation needs to be wrested from nature by violence, but the violence lives on in the coercion used to protect civilisation - a coercion known among other things as the political state.
And civilisation is, implicitly, the West.
The big problem with all this is that the most pressing political conflict of the moment is not between civilisation and culture or East and West. It is one where secular and democratic forces, religious and ethnic minorities, women and gays, artists, musicians and writers, as well as established, and decidedly unlovely, elites are all being confronted by an ultra violent, authoritarian religious obscurantism. It is also being fought mainly within the East, with a far higher body count, despite the atrocities in New York, Madrid and London. You can call it what you like, but I know what side any left leaning person should be on, and with Eagleton these days I am never sure.
Norm is also perplexed