When Academics Hate Civilization
Once during a post-seminar conversation with a grad school classmate, I expressed my frustration at the hermeneutic of suspicion that defines academia today. “You can’t just deconstruct everything,” I said. “You have to affirm something.” My interlocutor disagreed. When you affirm things, she told me, people get hurt. This is the “thought that stops all thought.” Disagreements about what to affirm are minor by comparison.
I try to pick up a Kurt Vonnegut novel every few years. There’s something refreshing about his tone of playful cynicism, which enables him to love humanity while bemoaning its manifold absurdities. Galápagos, though, was the first thing I’d ever read by him that truly crossed the line into anti-humanism.
The main action of the novel takes place in 1986, but the narrator, the ghost of a Vietnam deserter, looks back on it from the year 1,001,986. 1986, the year after Vonnegut published the book, marks when humanity as we know it (with a little help from a sterilizing plague) destroys itself. Only a ragtag group of castaways survive, shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Ecuador.
In fact, it’s the very island on which Charles Darwin made the observations that helped him formulate the theory of natural selection, and over the next million years, humanity evolves in some surprising ways. They grow fur and flippers. They hunt fish and flee sharks. Their lifespan shrinks to around 30, while full physical maturity arrives within a year. Most importantly, though, they no longer have their distinctive “big brains.” According to the narrator, an expert on man’s inhumanity to man, this is a good thing. Without those big brains, there can be no such thing as war or cruelty or deception or financial crisis (or love or poetry or art, but never mind all that). Nature, Vonnegut seems to be saying, is pristine, beautiful in itself. It need not be filtered through, nor imposed upon by, mind.
As a work of literature exploring a certain mood or feeling, it works. “The mark of strictly literary reading,” C.S. Lewis reminds us, “is that we need not believe or approve” of the argument of a book in order to appreciate it as a work of art. As a systematic philosophy of life, though, Galápagos is terrifying.
The idea that civilization’s sins outweigh its achievements and that we would therefore be better off without it is not confined to Galápagos either. In 2017, The New Yorker ran a review with the headline “The Case against Civilization.” This nihilism is rampant in the academy too. Queer theorist Lee Edelman wrote a book called No Future in which he argues that the future-oriented nature of civilization (i.e. you need babies to keep it going) makes it inherently oppressive to anyone who isn’t straight. He calls it “the fascism of the baby’s face.” Therefore, Edelman argues, queer people and their allies should embrace thanatos, wishing and striving for the death of civilization as we know it.
While a grad student at Georgetown, I got the chance to look over a paper by a history professor in which she had written that “to be outside language” is “to exist outside its exclusions, its intimate relationship to power and the violence it engenders. It is not those who refuse language who cause harm in the world.” Once you enter into the realm of language, this professor argued, you are inevitably trapped by and complicit in “systematic and systematizing projects of power.”
This scholarly approach, which originated with French psychologist Fernand Deligny, sparked quite a hubbub within academia. The Marxists, from whom the Deligny-inspired postmodernists split, have too much faith in civilization, believing it capable of delivering full equality and total human happiness. The postmodernists were eager to watch it die. I’m not sure who scares me more. I have more sympathy for the po-mos’ cynical view of human nature (a term every good postmodernist despises), but they lack that primal, unconditional loyalty to human life and longing, what G.K. Chesterton called “the flag of the world.” Only the man who holds such loyalty can speak freely for and against particular human institutions without ever renouncing the human enterprise itself.
According to Deligny and his acolytes, though, to speak at all is to oppress. Words make up Homer’s Iliad and the Emancipation Proclamation and the instructions for making penicillin, but they also make up Mein Kampf, so really it’s better that nobody communicate. To anyone who believes that space, time, and matter were spoken into being by a God who then proceeded to name His own creations and delegate some of that naming to humanity, such a statement is heresy. A denial of language comes close to being a denial of the logos, the spark of divinity within everyone. The cultural mandate to subdue and rule the earth requires that we build civilization, even as we work to mitigate its inevitable abuses. The New Jerusalem is a city, after all, and even Eden needed pruning. The solution to suffering is not to shed consciousness until we sink back into blissful bestial ignorance, but to maximize consciousness; not to know nothing, but to know everything, to obtain the beatific vision and behold the face of God. The image-bearing Judeo-Christian mind may be called to a certain degree of self-effacement, but it is forbidden to go so far is to turn against itself entirely.
But for the postmodernists (and for Eastern religion), no such restriction exists. If human civilization is a mere accident resulting from an evolutionary lark, then there’s no reason to treat the big brains that make civilization possible with any more honor than the gills our ancient ancestors discarded. If our minds and our drive to build and create didn’t come from God, their pros and cons can be weighed dispassionately. Do Chartres Cathedral and Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa suffice to balance out the Inquisition and the Catholic sex abuse scandal? Does the Pax Romana make up for the carnage of the gladiator games? Does the injustice of Jim Crow invalidate the achievements of the mighty American middle class? Charles Williams dismisses such questions in his novel Descent into Hell, writing that life is “either good or evil…and you can’t decide that by counting incidents on your fingers. The decision is of another kind.” Such questions must be dismissed. The moment we begin to ask ourselves whether civilization is worth it is the moment civilization dies.
Every other ideological extreme distorts the qualities that make humanity great; the anti-humanism of Galápagos negates them. Or as Walter in The Big Lebowski puts it, “say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, dude; at least it’s an ethos.”
Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.