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Civilization and Its Contents.

Civilization and Its Contents. By Bruce Mazlish (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 2004. xiv plus 188 pp. $45.00 cloth, $16.95 paper).

Professional historians know well that historical scholarship is full of problematic terms. Some of the more notorious of these terms travel in pairs, and working in tandem, they have the effect of reinforcing one another. Two prominent examples are state and nation. More insidious because of their stronger ideological valences are tradition and modernity--unfalsifiable categories that pretend to account for much while actually explaining little or nothing. Equally as bad, if not worse, are the reifications culture and civilization. Bruce Mazlish's new book focuses on this last pair, with particular attention to the concept of civilization.

Mazlish is a highly qualified candidate to explore the many facets of the term civilization and analyze the uses it has been put to since its first appearance in the eighteenth century. Over a lengthy and distinguished career, Mazlish has made significant contributions to intellectual history, psychoanalytical history, the history of science and technology, the history of the social sciences, and global history. All these interests play roles of some greater or lesser prominence in Mazlish's essay on the concept of civilization.

The essay opens with an intellectual history of the civilization concept in its early incarnations. Following Jean Starobinski, Mazlish traces its origin to Victor Riqueti Mirabeau (father of the revolutionary comte de Mirabeau), who in 1756 used the term civilization with reference to "a group of people who were polished, refined, and mannered, as well as virtuous in their social existence" (p. 7). The term caught on fast in the Enlightenment context, where it enjoyed a considerable vogue because of its association with the notion of human progress. Mazlish situates the emergence of this self-congratulatory concept of civilization in the context of a cultural environment influenced by European explorations in the larger world, continuing concerns about threats posed to Europe by the Ottoman Turks, and the early development of ethnography as a form of knowledge about the world and its peoples. Civilization was precisely the term that European observers needed to characterize their own society in contrast to the primitive, savage, barbaric, or otherwise un-civilized alternatives they encountered in the larger world. Brief discussions of writings by Captain James Cook, the German ethnographer Georg Forster, and British diplomat Lord Macartney enable Mazlish to flesh out Enlightenment-era conceptions of civilization.

One of the strong points of his early chapters is the attention Mazlish pays to the various understandings and articulations of the civilization construct in the works of early theorists and commentators. He finds that, like many another neologism, civilization was a mercurial term that changed its shape, expanded its reach, and played very different roles in the thought of different analysts (or propagandists) as they turned their gaze to different peoples and societies. During the Enlightenment era, European social theorists largely considered European civilization to be one among several advanced civilizations. Later, however, when reconceived and deployed as an exclusive category, civilization helped underwrite European colonial ventures by providing an ideology justifying the domination of culturally inferior peoples. In the nineteenth century, J. Arthur de Gobineau and others articulated an exclusive and racially charged view in which European civilization was the only true civilization: the category of civilization thus implied the moral superiority of European peoples and justified imperialism by emphasizing Europeans' duty to dominate others and raise them to higher levels of development. In the wake of the Great War of 1914-1918, Sigmund Freud and Norbert Elias were able to recognize frankly that civilization as a social form had costs as well as benefits. To the extent that it brought "progress," which itself might be subject to debate, civilization also levied a toll on the populations that created and sustained it. Nevertheless, in efforts to gain or retain maximum flexibility and independence in an era of European dominance, political leaders in Japan, China, Thailand, and other lands as well moved to adopt European standards of civilization in their own societies.

In his later chapters, Mazlish discusses somewhat diffusely a cluster of recent developments involving the concept of civilization. One is the possibility of a "Dialogue among Civilizations," to employ the term adopted by the United Nations in 2001 when it launched a major initiative seeking to foster cross-cultural communication and understanding. (More recently, too late for inclusion in Mazlish's account, the United Nations has also organized an "Alliance of Civilizations" program that seeks to build on the Dialogue among Civilizations with particular attention to Muslim societies.) Another issue is the question of global civilization, what such a concept might mean, whether it is a realistic possibility, and what forms identity with global civilization might take.

By the twenty-first century, however, the term civilization has worn so many masks and served so many purposes that it is impossible to take it seriously as an analytical category. Popular and political usages do not lead to increased clarity. Since September 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush has invoked the term civilization in almost every major speech on foreign policy in order to lay claim to moral legitimacy and lend luster to his various plans for the larger world. His usage harks back in many ways to the nineteenth-century vision of civilization as an exclusive category referring to supposedly superior societies with a duty to instruct, supervise, and even dominate their inferiors, so it does not square readily with efforts to foster dialogues among civilizations or to build a global civilization. If Mazlish's map of civilization proves anything, it shows definitively that the concept is all over the map. One implication of his study is that the time has come for scholars to abandon the thoroughly confused and largely ideological category of civilization and relegate the term to the dustbin of history.

Jerry H. Bentley

University of Hawaii
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Author:Bentley, Jerry H.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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