Historical context The fate of the body and the senses in the civilizing process
The core method of Gestalt therapy is to concentrate on what is at any given moment. First, 1 perceive what is offered through my senses; then 1 experience it through my emotions; finally 1 structure it cognitively in thought. Normally, the affective sensuous qualities of perceptions, sensations and emotions attain priority when we organize our experience. However, in my psychotherapeutic work 1 meet many people in whose life this order of priority is turned upside down: they have many categories of order, orientation and judgment at their disposal, but they do not use their senses well and feel very little. It is not surprising therefore, that they often say their motivation for therapy is wanting to get in contact with their feelings. This wish is frequently heard from clients at the beginning of therapy - a formulation which immediately shows their misery. For how could one “get in contact” with one’s feelings instead of simply feeling? Such clients (there are others, of course) do not comprise a small group of “emotionally disturbed” patients, who in contrast to more “normal” people need psychotherapeutic treatment. In fact, these represent the tip of an iceberg the true size of which psychotherapists never encounter. At least these clients have noticed that there is something missing. And they have come, because they have made up their minds to discover what there is to find. But even if this means that they have already taken the first step in their healing process, psychotherapists need to know more about their clients’ cultural background. Indeed, such knowledge is probably more significant today than their family background - the more traditional focus of psychotherapeutic exploration. Apart from the usual chaos of modern family life, the influence of peer groups and parental subcultures as well as that of the media have become increasingly significant. Gestalt therapy has always emphasized the importance of taking the field into account for understanding disturbances in the contacting processes between individuals - its main focus. That is why it is useful and urgent to start with the history and present state of our culture since it constitutes the general field of daily experience which thoroughly affects the life and the troubles of our clients and patients.
In the last 50 years there has been significant growth in the number of publications on the history of culture, covering aspects of the history of our senses and our sensibilities. Two very different authors have published classics in this field in the last century: Michel Foucault and Norbert Elias. Although Foucault's History of Sexuality (English edition 1978) made an important contribution to my observations in the opening considerations of this book, I will focus specifically on the theory of the “Civilizing Process” developed by Norbert Elias.
One good reason for this choice is that Elias’ sociological theory is based on the insight that this process of cultural development is taking place behind the backs of participants, who are largely unaware of its flow and direction and do not consciously influence it. We must understand that our culture is a field or a system with its own rules and laws determining our subjective experiences at least as much as our conscious actions. Jim Tull gives a good definition in a beautiful paragraph in his Essays on Global Transition.
A system is an assortment of parts making a whole by working together to achieve a unified purpose. Conscious attention typically associated with ‘purpose’ is not a requirement. Like all cultures, ours is a collection of parts struggling to work together to achieve a purpose as if all this had a will and mind of its own. Yet, though there is no conscious intention or intelligent design and execution, the cultural system is a unifying force pushing and shaping what we think and do. To forgive and love human individuals, 1 have found it very helpful to view culture in this way -always to see and understand humans in their cultural context.
(Tull, 2016, p. 212)
This is exactly the same methodological position Norbert Elias has taken in his sociological theory of the civilizing process.
Another good reason for choosing Elias’ theory as a starting point for our analysis of the cultural field active in the background of our patients’ felt miseries is that Elias’ research is mainly concerned with the changing manners of our everyday interactions with our fellow humans and with the changes in our emotional lives. For in contrast to other schools of psychotherapy, Gestalt therapy emphasizes the importance of our senses and our emotions for understanding neurotic processes, because they are the primordial way of being in the world and for making contact with our fellow beings. Along with this insight arose the socio-cultural context in which Gestalt therapy has developed simultaneously with many other cultural (or rather counter-cultural) attempts at re-vitalizing our senses and emotions. All this influenced Gestalt therapy.
Elias’ eminent work had already been published in 1939 in Switzerland, but was neglected for a long time because war broke out in the year of its publication, and Elias immigrated to England, having been persecuted by the Nazis for his Jewish descent. In 1969 a new edition appeared in Germany and simultaneously an English translation became available (Elias,
1969; Gleichmann et al.. 1979). In England, the importance of Elias’ work was soon discovered and became the focus of much debate among social scientists from different disciplines. Norbert Elias’ theory of the civilizing process certainly needs to be revised in some of its more general claims -after all it was written 75 years ago - yet in my judgment his book continues to present a challenging outline of what he called the civilizing process from late medieval society to the French Revolution. In the depth of its psychological and sociological insights, this work also provides the best departure point for an examination of what has constituted the civilizing process in Western societies during the last 150 years, which Elias did not directly take into account.1
Let us start with some general observations. What is prized in the world of work and in public life is hyper-meticulousness without emotion; detachment without involvement; strategic planning and calculation, and repression of spontaneity. All these behaviours are rewarded in public life. Conversely, in the world of personal relationships, a narcissistic partner choice is apparently the rule rather than the exception - i.e. a relationship where the other is “swallowed whole” in the neurotic desire for bolstering one’s own Ego.
In the realm of work, our culture discourages the curious and experiential use of our senses - with the exception of the eye, as long as it is seduced by the media. It disregards spontaneous expression of emotions which motivate action. Post-modern capitalist culture rewards detached analysis, compartmentalized rules, and the passive reception of prefabricated content. At the same time, leisure culture offers a rich array of opportunities for physical and psychological, aesthetic and esoteric experiences aimed at extending physical and emotional capacities. In this way the civilization of rich Western societies in its worldwide cultural hegemony presents a conflicting, even Janus-faced picture: on the one hand, manners have become much more relaxed and less formal; on the other, the unrestrained expression of feelings has largely been confined to our private lives and to media productions. We are trained to behave in a “cool” way, in a business-like matter-of-fact manner; and yet intensive emotional attachments between individuals are the rule right from childhood. Strictly hygienic body control and exacting levels of athletic capacity - as defined by youthfulness and health - are regarded as significant cultural values, whilst more and more people search for new ways of experiencing their bodies and their emotions as a whole - a longing that is far removed from a desire merely to maximize physical achievement, in which another part of our culture excels. We accept through our very life-style deep and significant intrusions into nature’s self-regulation; but “nature” and “naturalness” have never been such important values as they are in our present culture.
This picture has become even more complex since the rise of populist movements on the right wing of the political spectrum in almost all Western societies. In such an environment the civilized standards of behaviour seem to have declined to a shocking extent: vulgarity, unrestrained racism, sadistic hate, uncontrolled rage and physical violence are breaking through the strict barriers of the state’s monopoly of legitimate use of force and even violence. This monopoly is still considered to be essential for living together in a civilized and democratic society, but it is challenged by the New Media and increasingly it is expressed in the street. And this is even more true for the violation of other norms and values of civilized behaviour. Insults, denunciations of morality and trolling are common, as is unreasoned denial of facts; foul language is publicly used and tactful behaviour is lacking, while contempt is shown even for diplomatic behaviour. We observe a constant attack supported by the populist movements against behavioural standards taken for granted until now at least in the upper strata of society.
This seems to be a picture conveyed mostly by New Media. We should be aware, however, that these developments are also a product of even the traditionally serious media. David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg reported in the New York Times (14.11.16) that even in their own newspaper a tendency prevails to prefer bad news to good news in their reports and commentaries. This applies even more to the populist press, not to mention social media! It seems that the human brain, this author’s included, tends to be impressed by and hence to memorize bad news much more effectively than good news. This might have been an evolutionary advantage - until the development of our global culture of news at everybody’s fingertips.2 This phenomenon does not support a friendly view of our society but rather aggressive feelings and ranting.
This then is the complex socio-cultural background which all psychotherapeutic effort must reckon with today. In order to understand what is going on here we have to take a closer look at the work of Norbert Elias. As he understands it, the “civilizing process” is at its heart the gradual internalization of more and more external controls regarding the expression of physical and emotional needs. This he calls the development of a psychic mechanism of systematic self-restraint regarding the expression of feelings and needs. The function of this mechanism, which operates outside awareness, is to facilitate the replacement of spontaneous behaviour with strategically planned behaviours.
Two stages in this process are distinguished, which may however overlap. To begin with, all behaviours are subjected to increasingly strict and formalized standards of control. We observe for instance at the courts of the ancien régime in Europe of the 18th century formal types of behaviour being prescribed for more and more everyday situations, so that the question of what kind of behaviour is expected of the courtiers in this or that situation became increasingly important. This led to a new kind of literature of guide books on etiquette for courtiers.
The second phase in the civilizing process begins with the development of new, more moralizing practices of socialization in the middle classes. As a result, the more formal standards become internalized. Instead of the honour of the aristocrat, now it is the virtue of the gentleman which is the guide to acceptable behaviour. Gradually the control of the body and of the emotions becomes quasi-automatic. External sanctions of deviant behaviour like losing certain privileges or even being excluded from the court are gradually replaced by psychic reactions like embarrassment, shame and guilt feelings. The modern super-ego develops as a new locus of control and soon begins to be accompanied with and supported by endless commentary given by the new psychological sciences, at a later point quite specifically by psychiatry and psychoanalysis. (Interestingly, Michel Foucault has suggested that this “dis-coursization of sexuality” as he called this development, started with the elaboration of codices for the practice of confession in the Catholic Church.) The second stage of the civilizing process results in the emergence of what David Riesman called “the inner-directed” person, the person who owns a moral compass (Riesman, 1960).
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Elias emphasizes that the civilizing process always takes place amidst multiple cultural orientations and social movements and often asserts itself in spite of them - just as if it was independent of, and indifferent to, the goals and aims of the individuals acting in their historical time. We are dealing here with two forces which assert themselves unbeknown to the acting individuals but which nevertheless explain the civilizing process.
The first force is what today we call globalization. This is actually a much older historical force, apparent in European history at least since the beginning of the Renaissance and Europe’s conquest of other cultures since the 1400s. What Elias has in mind are the ever-expanding economic exchange processes covering ever-greater distances, forming chains of relationships and increasingly requiring the ability to “look ahead”, to use “foresight” (“Langsicht”) as Elias calls it. He also draws attention to the development of what sociologists call the “pattern of deferred gratification”. On the psychological plane this means that people need to show a capacity to plan, using other modes of rational behaviour, they need to exhibit that “tolerance of frustration” which can bear longer periods of delayed gratification. This is just that process of “disenchantment” with modern life through rationalization and bureaucratization, which Max Weber described in great detail - and which results in “affective neutrality”, as his American student, Talcott Parsons, called it. This becomes the measure of rational behaviour.
The second force fuelling the civilizing process is the gradual monopolization of legitimate force by the state during this period. Indeed, compared to the daily experience of violence typical of peoples’ lives in medieval and early modern times, we are now living in an era of over-arching physical and emotional security. Steven Pinker (2011) in his huge study of the decline of violence in the civilizing process - incidentally also starting with Elias’ work - makes the same point. Of course, violent crime still exists, and we do have our share of disturbances, terrorist attacks and uprisings. But in fact, the murder rate (numbers of murders compared to size of population) has declined to an astonishing degree! This is especially true of Europe. Pinker has some difficulty explaining the “special case” of the US and he says very little about the situation in Asia, Africa and South America. But in the Western world today our anxieties seem to be focused mainly on the increased danger of accidents which come along with the use of technical machinery, instead of fearing dangers originating in fellow human beings. Day and night we travel through land, air and sea in the industrialized world without fear of bands of robbers or pirates affecting our plans. The critical factor here is not the continued existence of violence within Western countries, but that the risk of its occurrence has diminished to the point that we no longer have to take it into account in planning activity.
Though it is true that there are old and new “no-go-areas” in the world outside the Western sphere of control, globally speaking the number of relatively peaceful areas is growing everywhere. Even the recent massive terrorist attacks in New York, London, Madrid and Paris or the increasing presence of pirates in south-east Asia and around the shores of Africa have not significantly changed the global trade and travel routines - numbers of airline passengers, for instance, continue to rise worldwide. Eventually, tourists return to places once devastated by terror attacks. The fact that even in the rich countries referenced here there are still some unsafe enclaves - for example slums and city parks at night - tends to emphasize that they are the exception to the rule of general pacification.
And the same might be said of risks threatening specific groups of potential victims in our society: women have to be aware of the dangers of sexual harassment; old people are exposed to a greater risk of being mugged; racial violence is not at all extinct; minorities such as homosexuals run a greater risk of being maltreated. However - with the exception of the special case of the USA (see Pinker, 2011) - crime rates in the Western world generally tend to decline.
Also, let us acknowledge that we no longer need to fear pestilence and cholera; that in everyday life, birth and death are largely hidden from view; that sick people are quickly isolated in hospitals; that we are no longer confronted with the sight of hunger or defecation in the streets; that we eat meat, but scarcely any town dweller has ever seen an animal slaughtered. Let us concede that personal experience of physical violence (in sharp contrast to what we experience in the media) has virtually disappeared from view in our everyday lives. The same holds true for sickness, death, and most unhygienic practices. This state of affairs is to a large extent guaranteed by public institutions, in the last resort by the monopolization of legitimate violence by the state. For our context it is important to take note of the statistical fact that in our time the greatest potential for violence arises not in the public arena but in private life. Most murders, bodily injury, sexual abuse of children and rape are committed in the family circle, amongst acquaintances, or in youth peer groups.
In Europe, we experience the singular incidence of seven almost uninterrupted decades of peace - an entirely new phenomenon in its history! The greater therefore was the shock following the eruption of extreme violence during the Balkan Wars and the arrival of Islamist terrorism. Each was accurately understood as a breakdown of civilization, which - for the first time since the Second World War and the Holocaust - brought back into focus how fragile the layer of civilization actually is.
1 will not at this point discuss the attempts Elias made to defend his theory in view of the horrors of the 20th century (Elias, 1969c). Were they interruptions of an on-going civilizing process caused by extraordinary historical circumstances - as Steven Pinker and Elias seem to think - or were they relapses into earlier stages of this process? Or did they mark the end of this civilizing process and prove that the claim of its universality, at least in the Western world, is unjustified? This is not easy to decide. Elias believes that the Holocaust can only be explained by the extraordinarily paranoid and enclosed kind of anti-Semitism cultivated by the Nazi elite. But this does not explain the normalization of violence against Jews and other minorities during the war and even before that by Germans and their collaborators, particularly in Eastern Europe but also in France and Italy.
It seems to me that in any case we would be well advised to see the civilizing process as fragile and always in need of protection. At present, a new war in Europe seems unlikely. But the experience of peace between nations and regions within Europe is too new to be trusted. The present lack of enthusiasm for the project of a pacified Europe is dangerously forgetful of the Yugoslav experience, not to speak of earlier chapters of European history. Under the veil of slow but continuous erosion of national sovereignty a new regionalism along the lines of prosperity, language and old traditions is growing. Perhaps worse, a new wave of anti-Semitism is spreading in Europe, even in Germany. At the same time the European Union is developing a strong bureaucracy with far-reaching decision-making powers but lacking democratic legitimization. These are dangerous developments, especially in times of economic crisis which have become almost normal in the south of Europe and feared everywhere as the next international financial crisis looms. Revolts and riots, uprisings and local wars threatening the civilizing process may well become a realistic prospect, even in a pacified Europe. And then there is the enormous present and future task of dealing with constant streams of refugees from Africa and Asia.
And, of course we must also take into account the situation that has developed in the United States, culminating in the presidency of Donald Trump. The slow but ongoing decay of democratic institutions in the USA is much older than the Trump administration and is, in my opinion, mostly due to the complete prioritization of economic over human concerns in American politics. But with Trump, the amoral nature of capitalism has surfaced as the normal standard of status and behaviour which - alongside a Trump-inspired revival of old American racism and his general contempt of women - until now could only be imagined by some television series. With the title of her new book - informed by her European background - former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has courageously drawn our attention to the real danger facing us: Fascism - A Warning (Albright, 2018).
Viewed from a personal perspective, we find a different picture. Nearparanoid fears concerning personal security, especially in public places and on public transportation systems in the big cities, are feeding into policy developments advocating more and more surveillance. Advancements in artificial intelligence technology and the development of drones will soon erase whatever is left of a private sphere. Today, drones for observation are no larger than small birds or even insects and are ready for production. They attract the interest of police departments, as well as the military: the price for our growing security will be the loss of more and more of our privacy, and in the final analysis, of our freedom. Leviathan is growing again with less and less legitimacy. China is the forerunner here; Xi Jinping, its most powerful leader since Mao, is trying to transform Chinese society into a digitally controlled totalitarian state. But the poison is active in the West too, reinforced by the real dangers of Islamic terrorism and destructive digital attacks on democratic states by Russia, among other perpetrators.
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Elias’ theory is not quite as original as he claimed. Karl Marx and Max Weber each analysed the same developmental process in their different ways. They were followed by the multifaceted tradition of the theory of the modernizing process. What was new in Elias - following the inspiration of Sigmund Freud - was the application of this tradition to the realms of the body and the emotions. Elias believed that he had identified as the most significant factors determining the history of the subject in Western Europe the increasing functional interdependency of economic transactions and the gradual expansion of internal pacification of societies by public intervention - in short, in the history of capitalism and the modern state.
Indeed, it may pay to follow this thought a little further. Perhaps we can say that the first phase of the civilizing process in Europe coincided with the phase of “original accumulation” (Karl Marx) of capital during the time of mercantilism and the Age of Enlightenment, where we see powerful attempts being made at directing and training the unpredictable impulses of our human nature (see Michel Foucault’s lifelong studies).
The second phase - the development of internalized thresholds of embarrassment, shame and guilt feelings - was strongly accelerated during the Industrial Revolution in a way hitherto unknown, corresponding with and facilitating the phase of competitive capitalism. 1 hasten to add that these process descriptions are not intended to signify a causal relationship, but more to suggest a complex network of functionally interconnected conditions, all of which require detailed investigation. Historians will always experience understandable discomfort when such phase models seem to suggest clear demarcations, since their vast quantity of facts and phenomena never fit into a simple developmental scheme. But the sociologist observing the present time must face the task of recognizing earlier patterns and stages in the development of the western Modern Era, if they want to understand our present society in Europe and America and its impact on the emerging globalized world order.
During the 18th century and before the Industrial Revolution had taken root, a surprising change in attitudes regarding cruelty against fellow human beings and even animals took place in Britain and Central Europe. A new humanism developed, resulting in the gradual abolition of extreme forms of torture, corporal punishments and eventually the death penalty. This was also evident in the abolition of slavery and ending the imprisonment of debtors, witch-hunting and other forms of violence against the body. This process is of course the early phase in the history of what we now call Human Rights - a history which continues to this day. having already made immense progress. One might think that it took a very long time but given the history of human violence - apparently part of the development of human culture since its origin in pre-human evolution - the speed is actually quite surprising. What by now has culminated in the abolition of the death penalty in many countries began during the French Revolution with the establishment of the guillotine as the standard instrument used by representatives of the state for putting people to death. This machine was the invention of a medical doctor whose intention was to humanize the procedure of execution, and was introduced little more than two hundred years ago!
From these observations various questions arise. How does the present period of socio-economic development, whether we call it late capitalism, digital capitalism, post-industrial society or post-modernity, relate to the civilizing process? Are we currently experiencing a third stage of the same process or are we dealing with the end of a development which for centuries pointed in the same direction, but which has now come to an end, creating space for something new?
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Before addressing this question, I must mention another aspect of Elias’ theory: the observation that the civilizing process usually starts with the economically significant classes and that new standards of behaviour only gradually percolate down through the class structure. Significantly, the first volume of his work has the sub-title: “Changes in the Behaviour of the Secular Upper Classes in the West” (Elias, 1969a). Formalization of behaviour started with the aristocrats and early modern patricians in the leading centres of Europe, initially in the city states of northern Italy and the mercantile centres of the Hanseatic League; then later at the courts of Paris, London, Madrid and Vienna, and eventually at smaller German courts too. Typically, the new standards of behaviour reached the economically significant families of the bourgeoisie in the cities prior to being adopted by the landed gentry. After this and often much later, we find the same behaviours in less elaborated forms of standardized “good behaviour” in the middle and lower strata of society. In the 18th century, the court of Versailles achieved the pinnacle of this formalization of behaviour with its strict rules and endless rituals. 150 years later, the rules of good behaviour at the dinner table or during the Sunday church service attended by entire middle-class families were no less strict, even if less formalized.
The constant flow of the civilizing process meant that people already educated in formal behaviours always had to anticipate the presence of people who had not yet fully undergone the process through which standards of civilized behaviour eventually became second nature. The Stanley Kubrick film "Barry Lyndon” gives an extraordinary artistic description of the extreme repression of anything to do with bodily expression and the life of the emotions achieved through the behavioural prescriptions guiding European aristocracy of the 18th century. Fellini’s “Casanova”, a film about the mechanization of sexuality during the same period, could be placed alongside it. The unusually beautiful sequences of Kubrick’s film - amongst them for the first time the famous shots lit solely by candle light - made most critics overlook what this film is really about: i.e. the socialization of nature during a particular historical phase, when our bodily and emotional impulses were being socialized.
Kubrick shows a stage of the civilizing process where its forced nature becomes particularly clear, because the formalization of behaviour is not yet internalized - and therefore pushed to an extreme. People appear to wear masks; move like marionettes. As ever, wild aggression and anxieties break through the thin veneer of those ritualized ways of behaving: for example, when offended by subtle verbal attacks, somebody suddenly and unexpectedly beats up his opponent; or vomits right in the middle of a highly ritualized duel with pistols. Stanley Kubrick’s film even encompasses the changes which occurred during this phase in our relationship to nature itself. The use of landscape photography references contemporary paintings and it is precisely their overwhelming beauty which shows perspective itself as a limiting achievement, hiding nature in its wild and untamed reality. Suddenly the image is allowed to move as a rider unexpectedly explodes into the picture, riding right across it.
More generally, the history of landscape painting illustrates a process of change in our attitude to our natural environment, corresponding to the formalization and later internalization of enforced behaviours. At first it shows the demythologization of raw nature, which did not become a legitimate subject sui generis for painting until it had been denuded of all magical properties; this followed a kind of aesthetic delimitation of the violence of nature, anticipated by the separate developments of still life painting; the idyllic landscape painting of the late Baroque and Rococo schools, and finally in the taming of nature through the romanticizing of its violent aspects, using them to elevate and enhance our sense of self. In the middle of the 18th century Johann Joachim Winckelmann, early archaeologist and originator of classicism in Germany, noted in his diaries that he had to close the curtains of his coach when he crossed the Alps, utterly awed by the violent and “abysmal” spectacle. At the end of that century, Immanuel Kant in his philosophy of aesthetics made the new distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, the latter referring to the beauty of wilderness. During the early decades of the 19th century, the Prussian painter Caspar David Friedrich famously romanticized the beauty of mountains and rocks as did J. M. W. Turner at the same time in England with the beauty of the sea. Finally a further hundred years later, the philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel could write an essay about the aesthetics of the Alps (Simmel, 1911). In the meantime, photography had been invented and had revolutionized our perception of nature: today images of sublime nature are so pervasive in our culture that the real and the virtual are becoming indistinguishable.
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Returning to the relationship between class structure and the civilizing process, Elias’ presentation is rather vague at this point and leaves us in the dark regarding the role of the bourgeoisie in relation to the aristocracy. While some of his observations seem to indicate that the two stages of the civilizing process are always repeated on the level of each social class, much could be said for an alternative version: that the second stage of internalizing stricter behavioural standards was largely the work of the early bourgeoisie, a development which -starting slightly later - works in parallel to the formalization of aristocratic behaviour. Of course, both classes move through both stages of the process. But it was the courts of the ancient regime which saw the culmination of formalization, whereas the bourgeoisie adopted the Protestant ethic whose puritanical requirements gradually became the ruling standard of behaviour and action, following the bourgeois revolutions and culminating in the Victorian era.
The concept of a diverse class distribution of civilized standards of behaviour was particularly well demonstrated - apparently without any knowledge of Elias’ work and in a different context - by the English sociologists Michael Young and Peter Willmott in their encompassing investigation of the development of modern family structures (Young I Willmott, 1975). They called it the "principle of stratified diffusion". 1 offer a short quotation from this book:
The image we are trying to suggest is that of a marching column with the people at the head of it usually being the first to wheel in a new direction.
The last rank keeps its distance from the first, and the distance between them does not lessen. But as the column advances, the last rank does eventually reach and pass the point where the first rank had passed some time before. In other words, the egalitarian tendency works with a time lag. The people in the rear cannot, without breaking rank and rushing ahead, reach where the van is, but, since the whole column is moving forward, they can hope in due course to reach where the van was. Lagged equality - always partial, never including everybody - is the nearest approach there has yet been to equality...
The source of momentum is not too obscure. Without industrialization the column would not be on the move.
(Young I Willmott, 1975, p. 20)
This last remark requires some clarification. In Western societies, the train started to move with the Industrial Revolution but did not really gain speed until after the Second World War. In spite of all the economic crises and wars of the 20th century, it eventually led to an era of unprecedented higher standards of living and mass consumption in the Western world. For a while, it seemed that the middle-class models of behaviour, i.e. the second stage of the civilizing process, would become the general standard prevailing in (modern) Western society.
But even as Young and Willmott published their book in the middle of the 1970s, another economic development started, which in the 21st century gained supremacy: more than half of the cars were cut off from the main force of slowly but constantly increasing wealth for all: industrial production slowed; wages stagnated or decreased in real value; an upper class of owners and shareholders of industrial companies moved forward without the burden of the poorer ranks of society - thereby becoming super-rich. The development of financial and digital capitalism gave rise to economic crises gripping the whole Western world. To varying degrees all Western societies were split into new socio-economic classes?
In other words, we cannot assume that the principle of stratified diffusion of economic riches is a sociological law which will always work in highly industrialized societies. It worked in the Western world approximately between 1945 and 1975. But now we are faced with an equality gap almost as big as that which existed before the beginning of the First World War. Yet it may well be that “lagged equality” will be, at least for some time, the new pattern of growth in some or most societies of the emerging economies. New data collected by Joerg Baten, economist at the University of Tuebingen, Germany, (Baten, 2016) suggests, that some developing countries, China and India among them, have recently succeeded in following the older Western pattern of lagged equality by connecting with the driving forces of industrial production. Taking the World Bank’s new definition of poverty as an income below 1.90 dollars per day, it turns out that the proportion of people who live in extreme poverty has declined from 37% in 1990 to 10 % in 2015 (corrected for actual buying power).
Yet in the Western world, the principle of lagged equality has slowly lost its descriptive power since the 1970s while the concentration of capital keeps escalating. Capital is now concentrated in the hands of just 0.1 % of the population. This new and still growing inequality gap is influenced by socioeconomic developments and political decisions operating differently in different Western countries. The gap is biggest in the US, followed by the UK and Germany among the bigger Western countries, and smallest in the Scandinavian countries with their traditional social-democratic governments (now also threatened by right wing populist movements).
This is not the place to discuss the multiple reasons for this change, but let us just consider one factor - the shift in the class structure of Western societies, which is the most important factor determining the fate of the civilizing process in times of peace. The most remarkable phenomenon is the disappearance or at least the shrinking of the traditional working class through automation, artificial intelligence, the rise of the service sector and to a lesser extent globalization. With the decline of traditional industries and the decay of whole cities like Detroit, or whole industrial areas - such as parts of northern England - the old working-class culture has virtually disappeared in many places in Europe and the US. The remnants of the old labour class, often well paid, highly skilled workers, are culturally alienated and isolated without their traditional homes and settlements, their pubs, bars, clubs and sports grounds. Together with the shrinking group of self-employed craftsmen and handymen they have become a lower middle class, separated from a new upper middle class mostly by lacking higher education. This new upper middle class is the result of an educational revolution, epitomized by the extraordinary increase in college and university students over the last decades. Numbers differ in different countries, but all in all the growth rate of graduates in higher educational institutions is quite staggering. Whilst traditional educational values and ideals of learning may have disappeared or be threatened by this development - as I believe they are - the traditional liberal value orientation or even prevailing social-democratic or “green” attitudes separate this new class culturally and importantly often politically from the lower middle classes. These, fearing downward mobility towards the ranks of the new lower classes of the jobless, the underpaid temporary workers, and the regionally underprivileged members of the so-called “precariat”, are or may become the carriers of the de-civilizing processes described above. In any case a new cultural gap between the new lower and the new upper middle classes can be observed which may be due to different access to education, different use of the internet, different use of social media and a different leisure culture. Here sociological research is still inconclusive and in dispute.
This new class structure which can be observed in all Western countries is both the result and the driving power of the growing gap between the first and last groups of the “train”. It is now a fact that every day in our societies the rich become richer and the poor get less of the cake. This is a dangerous development politically as well as culturally as far as the civilizing process is concerned. Much now depends on whether this dangerous trend will continue and globally destabilize industrialized societies. How dangerous it actually is, has long been demonstrated by the wide-ranging research of Richard Wilkinson and his collaborators at The Equality Trust in London (Wilkinson, 1996). Up to now, the principle of stratified diffusion as a dominant social mechanism for guaranteeing relative economic equality over longer periods of time, seems to have worked sufficiently well to contain the dissatisfaction of both the poor and the lower middle classes threatened by economic decline. If that trend had continued into the foreseeable future, it was unlikely that Western societies would have needed to anticipate violent class struggle -bordering on civil war. But today, it seems that the wagons of the lower economic ranks have indeed become disconnected from both the wagons at the front and the engine.
But to what extent is the economic situation of the divided middle classes responsible for the growing populism in the West? In order to find out if and to what degree this is the case we must take a number of different trends into account. One factor is immigration. In countries like the USA, but also in Britain, France and Germany, constant immigration changes the language of the lower classes in such a way that it is enriched to an astonishing degree, while at the same time drawing further away from the standards required by relevant educational institutions. An even more important factor is the growing influence of the new media: television, computer games and chat rooms as well as smart phones have already changed much of how we communicate, especially between younger people and their peer groups. But there are a number of other factors involved. Ten of them 1 will consider here more closely, without claiming that they are the only or the most important ones.
- 1 Firstly, there is the practice of bringing up children. Much sociological research has been carried out in the decades of the second half of the 20th century, studying regional and class differences in socialization procedures. That means we are relatively well informed about how such processes were carried out, but we know little about how the change in the class structure of our societies presently might influence these patterns. The older findings suggest typical differences of patterns of socialization between the middle classes and the lower classes. 1 think that we are dealing here with the two stages of the civilizing process, which in the last century were represented by and co-existed with each other in the two large classes of Western society at the time. In the 1970s, the British sociologist Basil Bernstein4 proposed that working-class children were disadvantaged by their “restricted” language code, in contrast to middle class children whose “elaborate” language code was identical with the language used in school. In the long debate which followed, at least one point became clear: the language of lower-class children is anything but “restricted”. In fact, it is often semantically richer than that of middleclass children. Yet it was true that the rules which children are expected to follow in educational institutions would more often be explained and reasoned in ways familiar to children of middle-class families. This replicated the ways the children had experienced at home - thus favouring middle class children's success in schools. Does this mean that such a split is now to be found between the present-day academically educated members of the new upper middle class and the new lower middle class, whose younger generation is merging more and more with the new lower class? We don’t know, but the almost hysterical application of the rules of “political correctness” in American elite universities might be an indication.
- 2 There are endless controversies among social scientists and intellectuals about how digitalization and the New Media affect our culture now and into the future, when today’s young people will have grown up. I am convinced that in the long run this development will have a deep and lasting effect on our culture. It is no longer just a question of which people, and how many in our societies will be more or less educated. More likely, this development will change the forms and content of education itself. Even the kind of intelligence required seems to be changing significantly: during the 1990s my colleagues and I observed that our students in the university began to display less and less capacity to concentrate on lectures for more than fifteen minutes. This was, as I found out by questioning my students, directly related to the date of the first appearance of the television set in their families, when they were children: the earlier, the greater the effect. On the other hand, they became more competent and less inhibited in oral exchanges, discussions and debates; their powers of imagination seemed to grow, and, of course they became better equipped to handle computers and use the internet.
Whether and to what extent the civilizing process continues at least in the Western World cannot be discussed without taking into account what has been termed the informalization process which in growing steps entered what used to be counted as its second phase; since the end of the First World War the rules of behaviour have been liberated from many strict rules.
At first sight, the civilizing process seems to continue but in fact it had already changed its character and become what later was termed the informalization process, as a third stage of the whole process. In our society we can find few relics of very formal behaviour, and these are no longer sustained by harsh external punishments like exclusion from the in-group or by inflicting physical pain. In fact, all kinds of physical violence are abhorred to a degree which suggests deep internalization of rules against it. It may seem paradoxical then that violence is so prevalent in the media. But is it really? Former generations used to read their children the most gruesome fairy tales without a second thought. True, today there is a certain tendency in the movies to show extremely brutal scenes, but in my opinion they mainly serve to stabilize the internalized rules against acting out these impulses. There is always a certain attraction of the forbidden, making us shudder. It is an old insight of the sociology of law and criminology that not only the punishment of the criminal but of the crime itself has the symbolic function of upholding the law. From this perspective, what astonishes more than a perhaps growing presence of violence in the movies is the constant decline of the rate of violent crimes in real life. Also, we should realize that what is actually shown, especially to children, is censored and has little to compare with horrors quite common in everyday life and even some forms of public entertainment only two hundred years ago.
But in order to understand the present stage of the civilizing process, it helps to consider society from a horizontal as well as from a vertical perspective, because we now live in a society with mass consumption and a high standard of living. Apparently, the civilizing process does not just move from the top down but also moves laterally from the economic centres to the periphery of societies. Ethnic differences in countries with many immigrants, as well as characteristic differences in the comparative behaviour of city and country dwellers can be interpreted more satisfactorily in this way. In our context here, this observation applies importantly to some of the significant differences in styles of affective expression which can be observed in different regions and countries. For instance, the often-cited lively and boisterous temperament of Mediterranean peoples is usually attributed to ethnic characteristics or even “national character”, while in fact this behaviour is typical for the first stage of the civilizing process when external constraints are not yet fully internalized - and will change when and where the civilizing process moves on.
This is not meant as an evaluative statement as one might speak of “civilized” or “uncivilized” behaviour in everyday speech, but a term describing a social process beyond the awareness of those involved, as Elias did not tire to emphasize in his books. The next example will show this more clearly.
3 Let’s take driving a car as an example of how frequently national styles and modes of behaviour have been cited as examples supporting the notion of “national character”. It seems that in the economic development of countries there is roughly a ten-year period within which the car becomes a means of mass transportation. This sudden increase in traffic forces people to drive in a more considered and controlled way. This is a process of self-training and increasing police controls probably contribute less to it than the growing emotional and physical risks attached to the situation. Travelling by car through Europe during the 1950s,
West Germans were said to be the worst drivers (“typical German aggression”). In the 1960s it tended to be the Italians and the Belgians, followed by complaints and jokes about the “reckless” driving style of Greeks, Turks and drivers from Eastern Europe. When 1 first visited Palermo in the 1950s, traffic was chaotic and drivers were indeed reckless; coming back seventy years later, 1 was surprised about the orderly flow of the now much thicker traffic as well as by the considerate driving style of Sicilian drivers.
This example also shows that the civilizing process is greatly speeded up if technical developments are involved. It is literally life-endangering to physically give vent to one’s aggression by standing on the accelerator. By comparison. the outbreak of physical violence among members of Parliament which can occasionally be observed in Italy is much less dangerous. To choose a more serious example, I dare not imagine what would happen with modern war machinery if those who are in control of an arsenal of atomic weapons or deadly drones were not practising continuous emotional self-control. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was an interesting (and fearful!) case in this respect: throughout the world, people were nervously listening to the radio, anxiously speculating whether Khrushchev and Kennedy would or would not be able to control their own aggressive impulses, anxieties over safety, and their frustrations (as well as those of their military!) to avoid an atomic disaster. Internalizing external restraints today has become a safety factor of our technical development. And that is why we have good reason to be afraid of President Trump, who seems to lack these internal constraints.
But even if an atomic global disaster, like a clash between America and North Korea, is not likely to happen imminently, we observe that every new technical invention, even if it only concerns driving a car, has at first to be controlled by the police or special security units empowered by the state. In other words, during the first phase of the introduction of a new technology the state now usually takes responsibility by working out rules and controls of behaviour until the larger public of consumers has sufficiently internalised them - just as in other areas of the civilizing process in former times! Every technology demands new rules to be worked out, such as governing the use of seat belts, or more recently, the use of smartphones while driving. This dimension of the civilizing process works internationally: the wealthier a society the more people fear the risks of new technologies and demand or tolerate state control of potential misbehaviour - even at the price of their individual freedom.
But how do we explain the range of emancipating movements which have freed us from the highly formalized Victorian behaviours of repressing physical and emotional spontaneity? After all. technological progress alone does not account for the social processes that led us towards our current standards of informality and the new emphasis on physical and emotional modes of expression.
Let us focus briefly on what actually happened, beyond the decline of violence in different fields of the civilizing process:
4 During the last hundred years, sport has become a mass phenomenon. Even if we disregard those aspects of sport relating to show-business or the cult of sporting heroes, we notice a surprisingly great interest in active sports. Together with the attraction of nature as expressed in the pleasure people have in camping, swimming, mountain climbing, skiing; in walking, surfing and para-gliding, the interest in sports indicates the significance we attribute to physical health which is confirmed by the spread of fitness centres. This is partly a reflection of the general medica-lization of society and partly a reaction to alienating and unhealthy aspects of our increasingly urbanized life styles with the spread of industrially produced cheap and. thinking of the spread of obesity, potentially poisonous food.
There is also however, a different trend in sport: extreme sport attracts more and more attention. In fact one of the strangest phenomena in Western societies today is the number of extreme ways by which more and more people seek to reach and even to stretch the limits of what they can physically attain and endure. As of now, over 2000 people have climbed Mount Everest, one third of them in the last decade and in doing so, 233 of them lost their lives (as of 2018). Others run through the Sahara desert, swim across the Channel, throw themselves from bridges into canyons or out of aeroplanes. They hike and bike hundreds of kilometres. They engage in free climbing, canoeing, snowboarding, base jumping, and ever-new challenges. It is difficult to clarify their motives but the number of people involved in extreme sports is growing every year. One explanation is addiction: at a certain level of endurance, the brain produces hormones which reduce pain and cause the so-called “flow” experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Another explanation for the “normal” forms of high-performance sports is to see in them a narcissistic search for the self-celebration of being the first, the strongest, and the best. But when these sportsmen and women are asked for their motivation, they often answer that they want to do something extraordinary, to experience life more intensely - as potentially we do when exposed to the risk of death. Are we to conclude that a life of saturation in modern society is so deathly boring that many seek the anti-depressive effects of “peak experiences” which in themselves seem meaningless? This would be a sad lack of awareness. As for instance any serious experience of meditation may show, the deeper we go in our embodied mindfulness, the richer and more exciting the present moments and situations become - without requiring the spice of extreme challenge.
- 5 Norbert Elias claimed that embarrassment and shame are the protectors of the civilising process. The internalized rules of behaviour punish each violation immediately by these very disagreeable emotions. With respect to physical nakedness, shame thresholds seem to be lower than they were 50 years ago. The most important step in this change occurred with the revolution in fashion before and after the First World War. This change was anticipated by the Art Nouveau movement with its emphasis on natural forms, and by various back-to-nature movements of the youth culture of the time. From then, we can trace the beginnings of a new re-evaluation of the “natural” beauty of the human body and our feelings towards it - a phenomenon not sufficiently explained by referring to short skirts, trousers and short hair being so much more practical for the growing number of working women from the middle and working classes. The end of the obligatory corset was the beginning of the end of the obligatory bra. Just compare photographs of women in the years before and during the First World War with ones from the early 1920s. In 1913, shortly before the war, a leading German fashion magazine even suggested a diet to counter (!) the slimness suffered by some unfortunate women. What a change in less than a decade! Men’s clothes, too, had become much more informal and comfortable. Nude bathing has been accepted in nudist colonies since the 1920s and is now tolerated even in the city parks of some of our bigger towns in Europe. During one summer in the 1990s the Turkish population of a neighbourhood in Berlin complained that the virtue of their daughters was endangered by the nudity of many German park visitors. Their answer - in a letter to the press - went something like this: “When we come to visit your country as tourists, you demand that we respect your customs and, for instance, refrain from swimming in the nude. Here in Germany where you choose to live, we demand of you, too, that you respect our customs”! It seems to me remarkable that at the end of the 20th century nudity in public can be claimed as a “custom” in the middle of Europe. The same goes for the home: children nowadays have a greater chance to see their parents’ naked bodies for longer than the traumatically fleeting moment permitted even 30 years ago. Also, nakedness has become standard practice for sexual intercourse. Kinsey, in his investigation 70 years ago, significantly reported characteristic class differences then still evident in this respect. These last developments, however, were only gaining prevalence when the informalization process really started - and that was not before the cultural change in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
- 6 Concerning sexual behaviour in general, I do not have the impression that the liberating tendencies of the 1960s and 70s deserve to be called a “sexual revolution”, but doubtless there has been a loosening up of puritanical standards. In fact, we always see the most radical Puritanism in societies when just going through the phase of original accumulation.
Today we can easily demonstrate this process in countries in other respects quite different, such as China, Malaysia, and Egypt - with typical differences between the rising urban middle classes and the majority of the population. However, regarding sexuality there are three significant developments characteristic of late capitalism: firstly, of course, the change in the position of women - a pre-condition for an acceptance of pre-marital sex and of divorce as normal phenomena; secondly, the invention and spread of oral contraceptives, which to a large extent have removed the gravest risk of pre-marital and extra-marital sexual intercourse. And thirdly, there is the strange phenomenon that today a kind of general voyeurism seems to be culturally accepted and even promoted. The spread of sexually stimulating images shown in public advertising is only its strongest expression.
- 7 With the invention of photography, our culture has developed an astonishing dominance of the eye compared to all the other senses? Again it seems that the technical medium is nothing but a vehicle for deeper processes: the capacity to see is exactly that sense which creates, emphasizes and uses distancing between my body and that of others. It looks as if the cultural dominance of the eye is yet again a phenomenon of that same civilizing process which in other areas (eating, for instance) is also concerned with creating an ever-greater distance between the body and its object. This voyeurism is nothing but what Michel Foucault called the “discoursization” of sexuality (Foucault, 1979), the endless interest in describing, cataloguing and differentiating all aspects of sexuality - which is the opposite of a natural and relaxed attitude towards it. This process continues in different forms: more and more pictures taking over from words as the medium of the message. Today we wonder about the future sex life of children who, via their smart phones, are familiar with pornography even before they reach puberty. This may turn out to be the real sexual revolution - another of those revolutions which do not lead to liberation.
- 8 In the realm of table manners we conduct ourselves much less formally than our grandparents did - even while we strictly observe all hygiene standards and adhere to the explicit rule that we must suppress all sounds associated with the process of eating, drinking, and digesting -a fact which seems remarkable only because other societies had so much pleasure from such expression of physical contentment. But talking about table manners may soon become irrelevant for the family dinner table is in danger of losing its traditional function and value. More and more eating takes place outside the home, in office cafeterias, fast food restaurants or in schools. Sitting at a table is no longer a prerequisite for eating: people eat while standing or walking in public; or in their homes, where often ready-to-eat food is available and no more is needed than opening the refrigerator and serving oneself with readymade food. With fast food abounding, table manners do not apply any more.
- 9 It is harder to gauge what happened to the n-tzp ive express feelings. Perhaps it is easiest to stick with aggression. And here, too, we find contradictory standards. On the one hand, the process of increasing control of spontaneous aggression is no doubt continuing: all forms of physical attack between adults are considered criminal acts; even verbal sparring is considered to be “deviant behaviour” while some forms of verbal insult are even legally punishable, and a code of honour - which might have been broken in the past - is nowhere in sight, except in some unassimilated immigrant families. In the public sphere, physical aggression is largely confined to the realms of war and terror. Even in wars when aggression is considered legitimate, Western soldiers often have to be systematically trained to kill, if they are to be used as special “taskforces” or torturers. Hence the preference to use bombing from airplanes and more recently the use of remote drones in the military: the more distant the object to be destroyed, the less inhibition about killing and destruction. The development of war machines illustrates most clearly how inescapably the fate of the civilizing process is now (and has been at least since World War I) interconnected with technological progress. The next stage will probably be the use of fighting robots.
- 10 In the private sphere we discover a different picture. While technological progress produces more formal rules of control to be observed, be it for security’s sake or for making war, i.e. killing, in private a person’s only controls are their internalized inhibitions against hurting our fellow human beings. Statistics show, however, that the modern nuclear family both harbours and hides an astonishing amount of violent behaviour. There can be no question that most murders, infant sexual abuses and even rapes today occur within the family circle and in intimate relationships. (Again, the US, due to anachronistic gun laws, is an exception here) But we are talking here not of premeditated murders but rather of the result of spontaneous violence, sudden outbreaks of hatred: and in men, often the rage of the defeated in the war of emotional expression. They may take refuge in their last resort, physical force being the only power they feel they have left.
All these examples support the proposition that from the end of World War 1, with interruptions during periods of fascist rule in European countries during the last century, we deal either with stronger, deeper internalizations or a third stage of the civilizing process, a slow process of informalization following and supported by the second stage, the process of internalization of formal rules of behaviour. But it is useful to understand, that this third stage only became the normal standard of behaviour after the cultural revolution of the 1960s and the 1970s. Until that time authoritarian standards prevailed in family as well as in public life, apart from bohemian circles and similar marginal milieus. Many people will remember the vehement family conflicts over the changing style of how young people were dressing and the appearance of the new electronic music when the Beatles arrived on the scene. From today’s perspective these conflicts are barely comprehensible. I vividly recall - driving through Colorado in 1968 - a huge billboard on the highway with the message “Beautify America: Have a Haircut!” Now informal manners have become standard, with marginal exceptions such as may for instance still be found in the banking sector. The burning question now is whether the restraints represented by the earlier internalization of rules of civilized behaviour guarded by shame barriers, remain strong enough to keep insulting and, more importantly, violent behaviour at bay. In this respect a new barrier may arise in our societies which runs along new lines of division between new social classes.
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Altogether, we are confronted with a diffuse picture: some tendencies contradict each other; some follow general developmental directions - complementing one another in Western societies. There seems to be no question that the civilizing process has not come to an end, even though we had to learn that it is capable of regression and terrible relapses. Apparently, it had so far three developmental stages which may occur in historical sequence but more likely appear simultaneously in different strata and in different geographical regions of our society. These are:
- 1 The formalization of behaviour
- 2 The internalization of formal rules of behaviour
- 3 The process of informalization of behaviour.
Also, presently there is once more a danger of regression, the diagnosis of which is particularly difficult because it occurs at the same time as the informalization process continues to develop.
Let us first consider two different views - one pessimistic, the other optimistic - that have been proposed in the general debate of where our culture is going, each in its own way deeply rooted in the experiences of the 20th century.
There are those who maintain that we have arrived at a second or even third stage of the industrial revolution or at a post-modern society - meaning that our society has developed into an economically, technologically and socially self-regulating system, where in principle all basic material problems have been solved. This view - or something similar - lies behind many social and economic analyses, mostly of American origin, which tend to focus their optimism on technological and scientific progress. Some believe that even the threat of global warming will be averted in the long run through technological solutions. It only remains to convince the rest of the world how appropriate such solutions are for the global village, in which supposedly we all now live. Many global enterprises and corporate finance foundations claim to be busily engaged in this task already. As to the cultural developments, we can now finally afford to tolerate a certain degree of liberation from the previously necessary constraints (Bell, 1976). Now the body and the emotions can even become the vehicles of our search for authentic self-realization. We live in a permissive society where we freely choose our preferred lifestyles and may express emotions and sensuousness in our private lives, because we can easily switch to highly controlled cool and rational modalities of feeling, thinking and acting at any time that the situation demands it.
In contrast the pessimistic view has always maintained that capitalism cannot generate true liberation from the repression of feelings and the body. This view has been put forward mainly by the intellectual leaders of the student movement and the hippy sub-culture of the 1960s and 70s. In this context, two authors from the older generations were particularly popular, the first being the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich who proposed in his Mass Psychology of Fascism (Reich, 1933) that the traditional patriarchal authoritarian model of the family was characterized by strong sexual repression responsible for the murderous atrocities of the Nazis. His book on The Function of Orgasm was widely read on the campuses and provided ideological support for the attempted sexual revolution. The other popular figure was Herbert Marcuse, another German immigrant to the USA, holding academic positions in several universities and where his main works Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1965) were published. In our context his Critique of Pure Tolerance (1965) is of particular interest, his argument running approximately as follows: today, the rigid formality of puritanical and Victorian standards of behaviour appears to be less evident but only because we have now sufficiently internalized these restraints. Emancipatory movements can be tolerated by the capitalist system as long as they remain superficial - only as long as they do not touch rationality and standards of achievement on which this economic system is based. Marcuse coined the expression “repressive tolerance” for this, in his view, essential characteristic of our society. What others celebrated as sexual revolution in the 1970s he described as “repressive de-sublimation”. Michel Foucault and many feminists and cultural critics of lesser stature have followed Marcuse in denouncing the new sexual freedom as just another, more subtle form of domination - a view which was recently updated by the #MeToo debate. From this perspective, all lifestyles appear to be just another form of commodity in the cultural market, simultaneously the objects and instruments of the economic system. Today, the internalization of external restraints - albeit in more subtle ways -continues to violate human nature. Behind the mask of emancipation, the civilizing process is the process of social relations increasingly dominated by subtle, invisible power relationships, the controllers of which are the so-called “helping professions”.
However, it appears to me that these two basic descriptions are insufficient to explain the developments which 1 have briefly sketched as characteristic of Western societies. We may note that both positions present typically middleclass views. But presently we observe a growing split in the middle classes in which the lower part, together with the traditional working class, are falling prey to the growing speed of automation and digitalization which destroy their jobs. It is this development - and not, as they themselves often seem to believe, the globalization process - which is the real cause of their justifiable fears, experienced as an alarming threat to those involved. This creates a certain confusion in the political realm. Just as Trump shouts “America First”, in Europe, too, the leaders of populist movements are typically nationalisti-cally or regionally oriented. Both claim that the dissatisfaction of a growing part of society is caused by globalization of the economy and especially the labour market. Indeed, Western societies are mostly as yet politically ignorant of the extent and the speed of radical transformation which the digital revolution will bring to every sphere of life. While Trump uses his smartphone to govern through his nightly posts on Twitter, every day jobs disappear through automation. It is no longer clear who the users are and who is misused by the New Media, except that digital capitalism is winning. Otherwise everybody, the rulers as well as the ruled, seems to be victims and offenders both at once.
With respect to the civilizing process, these developments appear as a backlash. For a considerable number of people, the restricted standards of behaviour seem insufficiently internalized to the extent that they break down under economic pressure or fears. This is not new; the civilizing process always was subject to regressions. What is new, though, is that presently such regression comes at a moment when the process of internalization is weakened by the prevalence of informality. Hence, we find on official as well as unofficial levels a resort to aggressive and vulgar language, culminating in hate mails and comments and the so-called shit storms using Facebook, Twitter etc. This goes hand-in-hand with a growing lack of inhibition concerning the use of vulgar language in society in general and perhaps more seriously in politics (see Bergen. 2016, and Adams, 2016).
The picture is more complex, however: there is also the emergence of Political Correctness, the history of which has still to be written. In our context it means the opposite of the informalization process: it is a new wave of external rules to control (mostly language) behaviour with a trajectory from the support of women and under-privileged minorities to the censure of literature and art. Meanwhile this development has led to what amounts at least in the States to a cultural war between “liberals” and “populists” along the lines of the new gulf between the two parts of the traditional middle class. What has importantly been overlooked by Elias’ account of the civilizing process, however, is that all emancipatory developments in their first stages must seek the help of formalized legal regulations or established social rules to support their innovative ideas by membership quotas, punishment for harassments, guarantees of civil rights, and access to formerly forbidden social spaces. This phase sometimes takes a very long time to take root in society until these new rules become internalized and protected rather by the guardians of civilization: shame and embarrassment.
So, we must take yet a closer look at this process of informalization. As such it is not under debate. The notion was introduced by Cas Wouters, a Dutch disciple of Norbert Elias (Wouters, 2007). With Elias' backing (Elias, 1969d) Wouters claimed that this process is a new phase in the civilizing process. Everywhere and in almost all spheres of life and social groups, over the past hundred years the rules that govern our behaviour have step-by-step become more informal. Over a long period, dress codes have become more relaxed; the ways we greet each other or leave a meeting have lost their former stiffness; outside the family, we more easily address each other by our first names and even before the present excess of vulgarity, our language codes had become much less guarded, less limited by taboos than in our grandparents’ homes where we usually maintain a standard of decency according to our internalized standards of politeness. Indeed, the theory of the informalization process seems a good description of many traits of the present culture of Western societies. It is not necessary however to go even further, as Wouters does, and stretch this theory as if it could be applied to the dimensions of universal history. Elias himself appears to have been more guarded when he said that the process of informalization is a new stage of the civilizing process and would lead to the “controlled loss of emotional control”. 1 am not sure that this applies to some features of very irrational control in the fights over political correctness, though.
But to understand this new stage of the civilizing process we must look even deeper, to the core of that process, which is our changing relationship to our bodies and our emotions. For these attitudes form the basis of the varieties of identity formation and reality construction which are typical for our society. The body clearly is not a separate monad, but part of a field which encompasses the individual and their environment. Emotions are states of excitement which arise at the contact boundary between the self and its objects - dependent on the actual situation. It seems that flexibility between involvement and distancing in relation to groups and other people is typical for the modern social personality which therefore has a corresponding capacity for playing ever new roles.
Robert Jay Lifton, psychiatrist and social scientist, offers a similar analysis when he speaks of the “protean character” of the modern human (Lifton, 1993). In Greek mythology, Proteus was a man who could adopt any shape with ease. As with David Riesman's description of the “outer directed” social character, Lifton sees the modern human as one who without difficulty can adopt many identities in the course of their life, while developing vague feelings of guilt due to lack of rootedness.
Actually, what has disappeared is the classical super-ego, the internalization of clearly defined criteria for right and wrong. According to Lifton. Protean man needs to be free from the internalized Father in order to be flexible enough to play the different and sometimes contradictory social roles required of him. And yet, he/she suffers from vague guilt feelings and a hidden tendency towards self-condemnation, because our culture is bound up with the illusion of a constant self-identity; with the idea that a healthy personality must have a strong and stable character. But in fact, the symbolic structure of our society resembles a broken mirror: we see fragments of our multiple identities accurately reflected, without being able to see ourselves as a whole. The fate of the self (our ego-identity) can never be separated from an interest in the reality status of what is happening in this moment. But few psychologists or social scientists have seen the connection. Often, they are internally too strongly connected to the previous stage of the civilizing process, where the formation and support of stable, inner directed personality structures was a central function of therapy.
Importantly however, the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy is an exception to this observation: Peris & Goodman already claimed in the 50s that “character” is a result of neurotic repressions rather than a valuable goal of psychotherapy, and that the self is in fact an ongoing process of identifications and alienations in the contacting processes of human beings and their environment (Peris & Goodman, 1952). It was unfortunate - but given its revolutionary new theory of psychotherapy also perhaps inevitable - that Gestalt therapy early on became identified with the counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s and remained so in the eyes of the psychotherapeutic establishment. Yet the cultural changes of these years not only inspired the development of Gestalt therapy but produced an immense change in the way psychotherapy now understands the importance of our physicality as a basis for and as part of our psyche. This has even reached psychoanalysis. Marcuse’s critique of “one-dimensional man” (Marcuse, 1965) does not do justice to the seriousness with which many of us now look for new and creative ways to deal with our bodily nature and the natural environment.
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My own hypothesis is that the present stage of the civilizing process can best be understood as the emergence of a reflexive relationship with nature. If it has become difficult to experience oneself as a whole. If the question “Who am 1?” becomes pertinent, one tends to look first at one’s own body, whose unity appears unbroken. Thus, what is new in our present culture is the reflexive use of the body, of feelings, of outer nature and - more generally -the way we construct reality in interaction. And I mean both a thoughtful attitude to choosing with full awareness the quality, the intensity and paradoxically even the degree of spontaneity in expressing physical and emotional needs - as well as the tendency to reflect upon such forms of expression and experience. One example is the flood of literature on the meaning and selfexperience of mountain climbing. Another is the enormous popularity of high-quality documentaries of wildlife. The paradox here is that there is barely any wilderness left on our planet and that which persists does so through human protection. This is probably the reason a growing number of people look for nature undisturbed by human beings - in deserts, the highest mountains and even in the arctic worlds. Yet even in the desert, one hears the noise of airplanes and in 2013 and 2019 there have been accidents due to “traffic jams” on Mount Everest where climbers have had to wait in line for up to two hours to ascend a track which can only be climbed by one person at a time. “Wilderness” becomes a social construction; “real nature” becomes confined to the “death zones”, where people may actually die, and which are only accessible for the rich (the charge climbing Mount Everest was about 80,000 dollars in 2017). Meanwhile, rangers direct the tourist traffic in Yellowstone Park (the biggest nature reserve in the States), protecting the animals from aggressive photographers and tourists from aggressive bears who have become beggars along the roads because the tourists are feeding them.
The hypothesis of a new reflective mode in our relationship with nature allows us to explain very diverse phenomena of our culture such as the deritualization of everyday life; changes in attitudes towards nakedness and sexuality; the ecology movements; the new political significance accruing to natural categories like region, gender and sexual orientation; the spread of psychotherapies concerned with the body and the emotions; the new interest in thanatology; the search for authentic religious experience; the experimental attitude towards esoteric experience and - more generally speaking - the range of different world views and experiences of alternative dimensions of reality through psychedelic drugs and mystical experiences in nature. The common denominator of all these phenomena is the new importance attached to a reflexive attitude towards both the nature of our physicality and of our environment.
This new attitude can be shown most easily in art, where it already has a tradition. More and more frequently, art consists in the self-reflection of its method of production and its ways of being consumed. An example would be Roy Liechtenstein's painting entitled “Masterpiece”, depicting male and female comic strip characters where the first figure says (word balloon): “Why, Brad darling, this painting is a masterpiece! My, soon you’ll have all of New York clamoring for your work!” But self-reflexivity does not always manifest itself as irony. An example of a more serious reflection on the method of production is Truffaut’s film “An American Night”, whose story is precisely that of producing the film.
In the theatre it is not just the relationship between play and reality which is reflected on. but frequently the relationship between actors and their audience. An example is Peter Handke’s play “Offending the Audience”, where the players do nothing for two hours but offend the audience. It becomes obvious that the moment we take the mantra “Art is Life!” seriously, the function of art consists in nothing but to indicate possible perspectives through which anyone can perceive the reality of their choice. There are many examples of this in contemporary art. Just two examples from recent exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: at one point, the visitor passing from one room to the next walks between a naked man and a naked woman standing within each side of the door frame. At another, a woman sits in the middle of a large room, an empty chair in front of her. and everybody is invited to occupy this chair and stare at her in close proximity for a certain time. A third example is from the 2012 “documenta” (the most important exhibition of contemporary art in Europe, taking place every ten years in Kassel, Germany). Visitors first enter a large hall which is completely empty; after a while, one notices a soft wind blowing through the hall: this is it - a “piece of art” - an artist making a point. At times it seems somewhat contrived when today’s artists - often with some pathos - show how fragile the experience of reality has become, when for the audience this has long been part of their everyday life. Still, works by René Magritte and Max Ernst are, of course, classics and copies are now sold in poster shops or are available as postcards! What I call the reflexive relationship with reality is to be found everywhere in modern society - today it is no longer significant that Art is Life but rather vice versa. Life is Art!
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But self-reflexivity is not only a mode of cognitive perception - just the opposite. It seems to me that the really interesting phenomenon of the reflexive mode is the self-reflexivity of sensuous perception and feeling: we are in love with love, we are afraid of fear, we experience pain in anticipation of being wounded; we experience sexual pleasure while reading or when talking about sex or looking at an erotic picture, and we might want to express our frustration intentionally in order to release pent-up anger, and so on. Gestalt therapy makes use of the potentialities of this cultural development in many ways, while at the same time supporting it.
But reflexive use of sensuous perception is only possible because 1 can be directly aware of my senses and my feelings at the very moment they are active. Only this capacity for awareness - for an internal mindfulness regarding feelings and body control - allows them to become objects of reflective action. Examples might be when we intentionally use a particularly polite and formal way of behaving - be it in play or as a strategy; or when we get involved with particularly unconventional experiences - for example a “re-birthing” or an “Avatar training” - without making an enduring commitment to the requisite behaviours and world views. This gradually-evolving new attitude is a reaction to the cultural availability of roles and emotions, of identities and realities as sources of possible experiences of self and the world.6 To be sure, the material condition for the emergence and enduring significance of these new orientations is that basic material needs are reasonably well safeguarded. The condition for their psychological effectiveness however is that we develop and refine embodied mindfulness and eventually reach a point beyond the sensory whirlwinds and emotional storms where pure awareness is the subject of experience.
Late capitalism can cope without the formation of a stable super-ego. In fact a strong but rigid character is increasingly becoming an obstacle to the individual’s ability to function. Instead of being a necessary condition in the socio-economic system it is more and more replaced by the new demands of perennial readiness to life-long learning, and the capacity to be always flexible for new but not necessarily creative adjustments. On the positive side the new stage of the civilizing process, which we see unfolding slowly and through conflicts, is that of a mindful orientation towards sensuousness in which distance and involvement, planning and spontaneity condition and supplement each other - even if the price for this development is role division, forced upon us by technological developments and economic conditions. These forces not only split their exponents into different cultural worlds but even split the individual’s contingent of social roles.
One of the results of this new stage of the civilizing process is that new tasks arise for education as well as for psychotherapy. We are now concerned less with internalizing cultural standards through parental injunctions and prohibitions, and more with the development of communicative competency and the ability to learn; we are concerned with creativity as well as with sensitivity for the exchange processes between human beings and their environment. The result would be reliable competency for participation in flexible and experimental constructions of reality. Such competency is founded on what 1 call embodied mindfulness. Gestalt therapy is an enterprise concerned with rediscovering, developing and caring for the pre-conditions of this competency. As a form of psychotherapy, it mainly deals with the dysfunctions produced by the new stage of the civilizing process itself through the very pressure on everyone to change their lives and keep learning. For with the enormous speed of development and the fast-growing complexity of modern societies, most people now experience that what they learned when young is already outdated by the time they reach middle age.
Today, common psychic dysfunctions are of two kinds. On the one hand we still see old-fashioned patterns of alienated character masks dominating the picture, especially in politics and corporations. These people tend towards depression. On the other hand, we see a growing number of people whose disturbance arises from anomic lack of orientation and narcissistic lack of boundaries. Their suffering is rooted in the growing virtualization of our worlds of experience -even though they tend to use this phenomenon as a point of refuge.
However, older stages of the civilizing process survive simultaneously and may cause conflicts. While paternalistic educational practices from a former stage of the civilizing process, focused on formal values of honour or religious virtues, may be completely outdated - though still surviving in evangelical enclaves in the US and in some traditional families of the new lower middle classes in Europe - they can also be imported by immigrants from premodern societies living in Western countries and struggling to adjust to their new cultural environment. Repressed rage only too easily crystallizes into resentments and prejudices, strengthening an attachment to the status quo of a consumer-orientated society, stifling creativity in human beings and damaging nature. If rigid self-control is culturally supported, it imparts an illu-sionary feeling of power and the capacity to achieve, but it is doomed to fail because it is a defeat of one’s own nature. Hence, where people are socialized in such ways within the growing culture of the new reflective attitudes towards nature, they lack the feeling of being alive, a feeling for the sensuously adventurous nature of life. Even in 1952 Peris & Goodman noticed this:
But suddenly the repressions begin to fail because of the general spread of luxuries and temptations; self-esteem is weakened by social insecurity and insignificance; character is not rewarded; and outgoing aggression in civil enterprise is hampered, so that aggression is wielded only against the self; in this present day situation self-conquest looms in the foreground as the centre of neurosis.
(Peris & Goodman: 145)
But then again, there is often the need to project what is experienced as limiting the self - and the limiting objects are always registered as “them”, the outsiders who do not “belong”.
Norbert Elias called our internalized mechanisms for self-repression a “machine of self-restraint” (“Selbstzwangsapparatur”) - according to him the condition of the possibility of civilized behaviour in modern society. To be sure, widespread peace has been helpful in this process! But Elias says little about the losses connected with this development; peace has been bought at the price of violence against our inner nature and our natural environment. Today’s world is threatened again by a new wave of aggressive resentment against people who “do not belong”. This is a result of the schism in the old middle class: its lower part is confused by the liberal values held up and taken for granted by its upper echelons, now often called “elites”, values which they have not yet internalized and which they believe are threatening their identities, aggravated by their not unjustified fear of downward mobility beyond their control. No wonder that Paul Goodman, who was no optimist, took neurosis to be an anthropologically unavoidable side-effect of the civilizing process.
Beyond these dysfunctions another more modern phenomenon now arises, affecting mostly the new academic upper-middle class in its urban and suburban habitats. This is the emergence of neurotically disturbed people who had no boundaries given to them in childhood, who were inundated with mechanical and digital toys, whose experience of nature was limited to a glance from the car window, whose bodily experience - in sexuality, too - is oriented towards competitive sports; who are alienated from the language of literature and from historical understanding but are very good and flexible in dealing with virtual worlds; human beings who play with alien identities because they are unable to develop their own. Increasingly, it is this kind of person who will need psychotherapeutic care today. Both groups show deep disturbances in the relationship between their human organism and its environment, and this is why Gestalt therapy may come closest to offering psychological solutions to these problems.
- 1 Such a procedure seems to me more in keeping with the value of Elias’ sociology, rather than glorifying it and edifying it as a monument either requiring support or needing to be toppled. The first procedure is followed mostly by his disciples; the second was tried by the cultural anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr, who seems to have made the battle against Elias his life's work. However interesting the material gathered by Duerr (2005), I am not sure that it devalues the theoretical core of Elias’ investigations. Although Duerr may have achieved some partial victories in his impressive enterprise - his collection of materials does not coalesce into a history of the subject in the European process of modernization. However accurate his rejection may be of any claim to general applicability of Elias' civilizing theory to extra-European cultures and pre-modern epochs of European history (something which Elias never claimed), I still think it is restricting to insist, as some ethnologists do - especially of the French structuralist school, apart from Duerr - on the ahistorical nature of anthropological constants, and thereby deny the value of any developmental perspective on the stream of human events, human behaviour and the history of our mental development
- 2 See also Pinker's new book Enlightenment Now (2019). The Swedish author Hans Rosling has been pursuing the same arguments for a long time already. See his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong about the World (2018).
- 3 These new facts in world economy are presented in the book by French economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) which has led to a worldwide debate among economists. For readers seeking a comprehensive summary of Piketty’s research and the debates it triggered, see John Cassidy, Piketty's Inequality in Six Charts, in The New Yorker (26.3.14).
- 4 See Bernstein (1971). For critical expansion see Hager et al. (1973).
- 5 For new research on the interesting history and sociology of the senses compare: Robert Jutte (2004)
- 6 It seems to me that the reflexive attitude towards (our) nature is underpinning the observations of Andreas Reckwitz’ much discussed new sociological theory of the society of singularities. See Reckwitz (2017).