Access this past course AU $180/$265

Civilisation and its unease revisited

Lecturer: Lachlan Ross

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 2 2019

This unit studies the idea that civilisation is pernicious, and looks at various responses, including Freud’s famous idea that civilisation is bad but freedom from it would be worse, Nietzsche’s statement that what we call civilisation is a form of sickness, but one that could leave us stronger were we to be ‘cured’, and Marx’s idea that our present de-humanisation is a process preparing us for a higher form of humanity. The three basic trajectories are thus: civilisation is to be accepted (though some will need psychoanalysis to do so), civilisation is to be rejected (though ‘culture’ is not), and civilisation is to be culminated (via the removal of the bourgeoisie, erstwhile agents of civilisation, but now its enemies). The last blocks of the unit will look at other responses based in and around these classical replies, with a focus on Marcuse’s concept that non-repressive/’easy’ civilisation is closer than we think.

Course Schedule

Block 1: Freud: Unease is the cost of doing business

Week 1: Freud’s anthropology

This week studies Freud’s concept of the state of nature and the social contract qua of the murder and internalisation of the father.

  • Reading: The Future of an Illusion

Week 2: The unease of civilisation, or, we are all enemies of civilisation

This week studies sublimation as the sine qua non of civilisation and the reason that civilisation must make us unhappy.

  • Reading: TBA. Unconfirmed guest lecturer.

Block 2: Nietzsche: Death to the ‘improvers’ of ‘man’

Week 3: Nietzsche’s view of history

This week studies Nietzsche’s very particular view of ‘progress’ as the progressive undermining of human strength and the victory of the small and the interests/welfare of the small.

  • Reading: Excepts from Beyond Good and Evil.

Week 4: On culture versus civilisation

This week examines a violent future in which we might be happy, returning to the concept of sublimation from a different angle.

  • Reading: John Rundell. ‘Violence, Cruelty, Power: Reflections on Heteronomy’.

Block 3: Marx: Freedom is ‘gestated’ in unfreedom

Week 5: On the genesis and content of the ‘Total man’.

This week studies how for Marx unfreedom and dehumanisation are the only possible paths to freedom and autonomy, explaining his odd hunger for a world war in the early 1850s.

  • Reading: Mixed primary excerpts.

Week 6: Engelsism?

This week studies recent literature that suggests that Engels is the true basis of Marxism, and explores the idea that Engelsism cannot understand the Marxist aim of ‘culture’, of civilisation culminated.

  • Reading: Mixed secondary excerpts from David McLellan, Marxism after Marx: An Introduction,
  • Tom Rockmore, Marx after Marxism: The Philosophy of Karl Marx and Gareth Stedman-Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion: A Life.

Block 4: Simmel and Weber: Studies of(/in) the Iron Cage

Week 7: The merits of anomie

This week will study a proto-Freudian response to civilisation grounded in Marxism. Before Freud, Simmel stated that human unease could not be removed from civilisation. Like Freud, Simmel focused on the necessary relationship between unhappiness and being free and civilised, making more peace with unease than Freud could.

  • Reading: TBA. Unconfirmed guest lecturer.

Week 8: Civilisation as Universal culture

For Weber, it is almost certain that ‘civilisation’ will turn into its opposite. On the other hand, if we try to escape, it is entirely certain that civilisation will turn into barbarism.

  • Reading: TBA. Unconfirmed guest lecturer.

Block 5: Adorno and Marcuse: Do not bridle nature

Week 9: The technological rationale is the rationale of domination

This week studies Adorno’s response to the problem of civilisation. Unlike Weber, who tells us to try to thread the needle and make instrumental rationality work for us, Adorno suggests that we give up on civilisation and any attempt to master nature. As for Nietzsche, however, the idea of culture remains important, though without Nietzsche’s obsession with higher forms of cruelty and violence remaining within culture.

  • Reading: Excerpt from Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Week 10: Marcuse: Alienation revisited

This week revisits Marx’s concept of alienation and examines Marcuse’s response: that work cannot be made safe for us and we must instead focus on play.

  • Reading: Herbert Marcuse, ‘On the Philosophical Foundation of the Concept of Labor in Economics’.

    Block 6: On the possibility of non-repressive civilisation

Week 11: Critiques of Freud

This week compares the basic theses of Civilisation and its Discontents and Eros and Civilisation. For Marcuse, prohibitions against gratification can be loosened without a descent into a Hobbesian nightmare. His concept of ‘self-sublimation’ dictates that the nature of raw gratification itself leads away from unbridled pleasure: especially for trained beings such as us. Much repression today is ‘surplus repression’ and can be removed. ‘Regression’ will follow, but not as much as Freud imagined, and we will gain much for a little loss.

  • Reading: Excerpts from Eros and Civilisation.

Week 12: Amy Allen and the end of progress

This week challenges some of the ideas of civilisation and progress put forward in the unit and summarises the unit.

  • Reading: Excerpt from The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory.