Cries from the heart of civilisation

Violence and Civilisation
November 14, 1997

Norbert Elias was born in 1897 in Germany. He lived a long and productive life, dying on August 1 1990 in his final home, Amsterdam. He had fled his native country in 1933 because, as a Jew, his life was in danger from the Nazis. Elias came to England where he remained until the late 1960s, though his parents perished in Breslau and Auschwitz. He was never awarded a chair in sociology in this country, though he was a key figure in what was then the major centre for sociology, Leicester University, during the early 1960s.

These two features of his life - relative lack of acknowledgement by the profession and direct experience of the Holocaust - are striking, first because today he is seen as one of the major contributors to social analysis of the century and, second, because his work is recurrently criticised for its inability to make sense of the persistence of violence in the world.

His best-known argument, that the "civilising process" may be traced developmentally through centuries, consistently encounters the objection that it cannot account for the genocide in which Elias's own family perished.

Jonathan Fletcher's book endeavours to advance the reputation of Elias and defend it against the charge that it cannot explain violence today. I am not persuaded by the book, but it is a valuable addition to the literature on Elias's "configurational sociology", a study that allows deeper appreciation of Elias's fertile imagination.

Elias received recognition very late in life with the translation, 40 years after its original publication in Germany, of his two-volume magnum opus, The Civilizing Process. This became compulsory reading, for its arresting historical detail, its astonishing use of sources and the sheer inventiveness of its argument. Elias's thesis was that one could trace the emergence of a "civilising" process, of the spread of civility, self-restraint and consideration for others, away from impulsive, emotional and vitriolic behaviour. His theme was that, with the increased pacification of external life that came with the establishment of the state and organisation of affairs, there developed parallel internal constraints.

And what evidence he adduced to support this argument! Elias showed that at one time bear-baiting, bare-knuckled boxing, the burning of cats, farting in public, hideous torture of one's enemies, wiping one's nose on one's sleeve, eating with one's hands and rarely washing were all routine, indicative of a dearth of civilisation. He suggested that people were more subject to violent outbursts. Using primers on manners, anecdotes from courtly behaviour and wide-ranging literary sources, Elias traced the shift towards heightened self-control and sensitivity towards others, such that today a belch may mortify, body odour appal, forceful language be interpreted as bullying, and gutting a rabbit on the kitchen table may betoken barbarity.

There is more than an echo of Freud in Elias's work, and the notion of a restraining superego is evident in his key idea that we have developed greater levels of self-control. To be sure, modern sports allow some expression of aggression, but chiefly it is our internalised beliefs that hold us in check.

A great deal of this rings true in terms of our experiences. Moreover, it helps us to understand the behaviour of different groups. For instance, Elias's followers at Leicester University have fruitfully applied his concepts to help us understand why it is that football hooliganism is found predominantly in the least skilled, poorly educated and highly territorial unrestrained male manual workers. There are still those around who are quick to take offence at the gesture of a stranger, who will flare up at the least provocation. How they contrast with the middle classes who go to great length to avoid giving the least offence, who take discretion to extremes, who are altogether, well, more "civilised".

But the problem with this thesis, as has been pointed out by many critics, is that it carries with it an evolutionist premise, the movement onwards and upwards to "civilisation". And how this contrasts with the stark reality of the 20th century's capacity for warfare, murder, ethnic nationalism and the rest. Fletcher tries his hardest to rescue Elias from this charge, insisting that his theory is capable of accounting for episodes of "decivilisation". At one point Fletcher considers Zygmunt Bauman's profound study, Modernity and the Holocaust, a book that highlights the adoption by the Nazis of the most refined techniques to slaughter six million Jews, not least so that the sensitivities of the executioners could be protected ("no blood on my hands, I only drove the train to Dachau"). Fletcher sees Bauman's study as complementary to Elias's "civilising process". But this cannot be right. Elias emphasised the long-term and gradualist spread of "civilising" processes, while Bauman's study laid bare the dark side of modernity - there is no way the two approaches can be harmonised. The quality of Bauman's masterly study underscores the limitations of Elias, an important thinker but one ultimately incapable of accounting for an epic tragedy that struck even his own family.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, Oxford Brookes University.

Violence and Civilisation: An Introduction to the Work of Norbert Elias

Author - Jonathan Fletcher
ISBN - 0 7456 1434 5 and 0 7456 1879 0
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 217

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