Culture against Civilization


The Chinatown bus is a cultural model to be emulated. Anyone that complains that they’re too sketchy or scary should stick to official trade routes, like a sucker. Just sit in the back rows. The accidents, the decapitations, all happen in the front-row, when the driver falls asleep and runs into a pole or shears off the top of a double-decker. What I mean by being a “cultural model” is that I’ve always admired them as a nimble, protean, cheap, illegitimate entity— and in ways at odds with American civilization just as most culture ought to be at odds with civilization. Civilization is not equivalent to culture, or for that matter to society, technology, and modernity. All these things are distinct from civilization and often exist in thoroughly sneaky, threatening, uncivilized forms, right here in the bosom of the civilized world— like a gaggle of confused bus passengers being smuggled through lower Manhattan for a curbside pick-up. Or, like Chinatown bus companies figuring out ever new ways to say “fuck you” in Chinese to Greyhound and the transit officials. I love this.

I’ve lately begun to think of civilization in its more restricted sense: as a very specific social mode brought about when power, center, and system come together in “syzygy” or alignment. I think of it less and less as the fruits of history’s lessons and labors, or as equivalent to the “modern world.” This over-organization has its benefits, but on the whole, it’s over-rated, over-hyped— ideological cover for forms of unfreedom. What I like to discover are currents of uncivilization running through the overly-civilized, overly-consolidated world; those currents that at the same time refuse to be wholly externalized or made into harmless kooks living in the woods or outlying provinces. I like forms of modern, even hyper-modern uncivilization. Many of my passions have been uncivilizing activities— first delinquency, then skateboarding, then critical and subterranean culture-making— and many of my earliest heroes were what I’d call internal enemies of civilization, often moving in packs— Encyclopaedistes, Dadaists, Bones Brigade, Olneyville. People like that.
I also stand in league with God’s sneakier creatures: foxes, squirrels, bats, crows. I really relate to their mode of living. Rats and mice hardly bother me. If they’d just shit someplace besides the utensil drawer, they could stay forever for all I care, and fill the walls and plaster with what I consider to be a very pleasant life-feeling. Recent pictures of the flying fox— a vulpine bat about the size of a small boy— made me sure that I’d found my representative in the animal kingdom: flight plus sneak and stealth plus love of night and cavern. The match is dead-on. Many of the above creatures live in the crevices of civilization, near man, even at its very center, while still slipping many of its unfreedoms and entrapments. For me, this is the ideal relation, or what we might call an ideal “positionality.”

The thing about civilization— or its syzygy of power, center, and system— is that it’s pretty slick about buying everyone off, or flattering them, or convincing them that civilization is the only game in town. It appropriates real cultural energy and makes everyone think it had civilized origins, in the way that the cultural genius of the Greeks (as well as countless forgotten provinces) still gets confused with the civilizing acumen of the Romans, the condo-builders of the ancient world. Cultural genius versus civilizing acumen— this is what I keep harping on. Civilization, and those in its thrall, tend to equate culture-making with legitimation, when far more often, legitimation only comes once the effects of culture-making have run their course and lost their power to threaten and change the civilized order. To be unfair, all museums in this sense are history museums, registering historical moments that have already passed their prime and lost their sting. However, even in the most radical quarters, I sometimes find a kind of institutional realism persisting: the idea that something only counts once institutions get their hands on it and vouchsafe its importance and existence for a greater public.

Legitimacy cools hot cultural energy into an inscription upon the social order; I prefer too-hot cultural energies that stave off legitimacy for as long as possible. I prefer the bubbling, uncooperative, plasmic phase when no one knows what’s coming next and most others don’t even know what’s going on. In most of my own previous attempts at anti-institutions, people kept taking them for aspiring venues, galleries, or universities that just couldn’t get their act together or do things properly. The uncooperativeness, illegitimacy, quasi-nomadicity, perishability, dissimulation, secrecy, ragtagness, the pack or band formations— all this was taken as accidental or under construction, rather than tactical or purposeful. But they’re methods. Forms. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to make things of quality or import or even lasting significance, only that how these efforts are brought into the social whole has to be thought through, and not just handed over. Culture-making— at least the part of it that is truly critical and creative rather than just ornamental— should take lessons from those peoples or enclaves typically considered “enemies of civilization”— or at least its most obstinate members. Nomads, smugglers, criminals, terrorists, and these kind of folks. Not their violence or ideologies, but their forms of resistance and self-organization.

Drew Gillespie, on a tear once, blurted out that he thought that terrorists were “cool.” Catching himself, he added “okay, that might be taken the wrong way. All I’m saying is that… if terrorists were in a band, they would make the coolest music.” For me, this cuts straight to the heart of something in the culture-making impulse, and its squirmy relation to the civilized order of things. The band or pack formation of music, or art collectives, is no coincidence. It’s a thriving form for good reasons. If culture-making wants to stay free, slip the ensnarements of civilization, to remain its critic and tease, it might want look and learn from others with roughly the same “positionality.” History and letters are rich with examples. Texts that lay out the history of peoples against civilization or over-incorporation. Deleuze and Guattari’s “war machine” and “nomadology,” Pierre Clastres’ Society Against the State, James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed— these texts do not have to be read as against the State per se, but against over-alignments of power, center, and system whenever and however they arise.

James C. Scott lecture. Listen for analogues to culture:

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