Civilization, a grammar: Imprint, impress, imperium


“Pyramid of Capitalist System” cartoon (1911), a symbolic depiction of social stratification in an example of the socialist critique of capitalism. PHOTO/Wikipedia

Civilization—a word that sings and is sung in all sorts of scenes. A wandering fairy that evaporates in an iridescent blur. Why should we take account of it again? Because there is no time to be lost—and that vaporous, ethereal, shape-shifting word is covering up a reality that could not be more pressing or more concrete.

What is a civilization? A brief glance at the disappearance of our own might help us to understand this old question. When did Europe meet its end as a civilization? In the short period that can be seen, symbolically, as beginning in 1919 and concluding in 1996, that is between two major publications, two benchmarks: ‘The Crisis of the Mind’, by the Frenchman Paul Valéry, and The Clash of Civilizations, from the American Samuel Huntington. The difference—the gaping chasm—of views between these two watchmen on the same ramparts, illustrates more than a change of paradigm: it is an astronomical revolution. Between these two dates, the Earth and the Sun switched places. From the cia to rap, from House of Cards to The Apprentice, there has been an astonishing permeation of national cultures across the globe by American civilization. Yet what follows is, certainly, no jeremiad. Rather it offers a series of arabesques on the contemporary world linking the small facts of daily life to the long history of cultures, empires and civilizations, and to the particular grammar of civilizations: tracking the transfers of power between three key terms—empire, emprise (impression or influence) and empreinte (imprint, mark or trace)—but beginning at the end of the story, by following the imprints. [1]

First, however, a warning: the use of the word ‘America’ in the singular and without an adjective may shock the reader. In the expression ‘God bless America’ or ‘Make America great again’, the part is taken for the whole. In Latin America, they speak more accurately of the Americas—Las Americas. ‘America’ was the baptismal name given in 1507 by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, based on the voyage of the Italian Amerigo Vespucci to only the southern half of the Western hemisphere. The symbolic cornering of its two continents by English-speaking and Protestant America, ignoring the Romance languages and Catholic traditions in the rest of the New World, has since expressed the relationship of forces between them. In what follows, the word designates less a state and a territory than a certain form of civilization.


Paul Valéry did not want us to waste too much time defining these vague entities, which he knew to be mortal. Let us grant him that it is easier to identify, at a distance at least, a savage than one who is civilized. The former has red skin, a feather through the nose, earrings; the latter is more elusive. A more serious definition has to stipulate a delimited period of time (stopping the meter) and a confined extent of space (a ‘here’ and no further). Yet the distinguishing characteristic of a living civilization is its capacity for metabolism: it transforms itself as it absorbs and stimulates others. They who would make of it a fixity only mummify a being which in reality feeds on borrowings and exchanges. A civilization also means windows and ventilators, missionaries and merchants. Marco Polo, taking the Silk Road, blew a little Italian air into the Mongol Empire, and a little of the air of Asia into Pisa intra muros. The Mexican peon scales the 21-foot fence and learns English; the West Coast must start learning Spanish again. Here, to breathe is to mingle. Isolates are abstractions and isolators do themselves no favours. ‘You don’t belong here, clear off’ amounts to ‘let me decay in my bolt-hole’.

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