Civilization vs. Culture

Over at Comment is Free, Terry Eagleton offers a weird piece that implicitly argues that the East lacks civilization and the West lacks culture.

Ever since the early 19th century, culture or civilisation has been the opposite of barbarism. Behind this opposition lay a kind of narrative: first you had barbarism, then civilisation was dredged out of its murky depths. Radical thinkers, by contrast, have always seen barbarism and civilisation as synchronous. This is what the German Marxist Walter Benjamin had in mind when he declared that “every document of civilisation is at the same time a record of barbarism”. For every cathedral, a pit of bones; for every work of art, the mass labour that granted the artist the resources to create it. 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.

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.