Work in Progress: Structural Differentiation and Detachment

Regular readers will be familiar with the concepts that I employ in the analysis of civilization, especially that of a central project, which is, for me, increasingly the central concept for understanding civilizations — how and why they originate, how they develop, what their apogee consists in, and how and why they fail.

For all that I have written about central projects so far, I haven’t even yet scratched the surface. We have neither the concepts nor the terminology needed to analyze central projects in the requisite level of detail, clarity, and distinctiveness to do justice to the concept, and doing justice to the concept of a central project is how I try to do justice to the concept of civilization. It would be a good project to write a book to be titled Central Project Studies that consisted only of careful analyses of central projects of civilizations past and present.

I got the term “central project” from Frank White, and he had used it to describe the role of the Apollo moon landings for contemporary civilization. I took over the idea and it has continued to mutate as I have thought more about it. My version of the concept is now significantly different from what it was when I first encountered it. Now I would make a distinction between central projects and leading institutions, with leading institutions coming and going, variously representing the ideals of the central project.

While the Space Race was at its most intense, the American and Soviet space programs were the leading institutions of their respective civilization of the time, but this is manifestly no longer the case. However, the civilizations that produced the space programs are still intact; the central project transcends the leading institution that represents it at any one time. Leading institutions change as a civilization develops; the central project develops too, but a change of central project is, by definition, a change of civilization, while one and the same civilization can have a series of leading institutions while possessing one and the same central project throughout. And there can be more than one leading institution that represents the central project at any one time.

One of the most difficult problems I have been working on is that of the different kinds of central projects that define different levels of civilization. The very idea of levels of civilization is ambiguous, but I have made several attempts to spell out what I mean by this, none of them entirely successful or satisfactory. My first formulation of this was the idea of orders of civilization. However, this attempt was poorly defined and insufficiently concise and schematic as a guide to institutional structures.

Reflecting on the inadequacy of what I called orders of civilization, I have returned to this idea repeatedly in recent months, trying to find an intuitive way to formulate the kind of taxonomy that I want to formulate. Mostly recently I was toying with the idea of a simple bifurcation between clusters and series of civilization. A cluster consists of a number of overlapping civilization within a given geographical region that share significant features despite being distinct civilizations. Western Europe is a cluster, and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica was a cluster. A series consists of a number of civilizations laid end to end in time, such that each later civilization inherits significant features of earlier civilizations in the series, despite being distinct civilizations. The familiar periodization of ancientmedievalmodern constitutes a way to think of western civilization as a series. Indian civilization constitutes a series, and the sequence of civilizations in pre-Columbian Peru constitute a series.

A forking taxonomy of civilizations would be a bit like the Hubble taxonomy of galaxies, with one fork being spirals, the other fork being barred spirals, and both converge upon elliptical galaxies. One could make a similar forked diagram for civilization, with one fork being clusters and the other fork being series. If we allow further refinement, each fork can split in turn, so that the fork of clusters bifurcates into clusters of clusters and clusters of series, while the fork of series bifurcates into series of clusters and series of series. One can easily see that this gets pretty complicated pretty quickly, so that if civilizations endure for a period of time to fill out the stages of such a forking taxonomy, both forks will tend toward an undifferentiated mass, sort of like an elliptical galaxy.

At present I am undecided about this particular schematism, but it at least has a clear organizational structure that proceeds from clear principles distinguishing the institutional structures of civilization. But it doesn’t always get me where I need to go in order to account for actually existing civilizations of greater complexity.

So in my notebooks I have recently introduced the concept of “basal civilization,” which is a civilization in its simplest configuration — viz. several cities within a given geographical region that share a culture and are continuously related to each other through relationships of cooperation, competition, and conflict. This is the starting point for civilization, wherever it has emerged in the world. Civilizations either die off (if a failure condition obtains) or get more complex from this common point of origin. So I wanted to name that point of origin in order to distinguish it from more complicated civilizational formations, however these later, more complicated formations are structured, however they descend from basal civilization, and however we choose to schematize these later developments.

Olmec civilization in Mesoamerica was a basal civilization that stood at the origins of the Mesoamerican cluster, which branched out into Toltecs, Zapotecs, Mayans, Aztecs, and many others, all of which shared significant features such as ritualized bloodletting and the Mesoamerican ball game. The origins of western civilization were more complex; western civilization does not stem from a basal civilization, but has its origin in the Mesopotamian cluster, though indirectly. Mesopotamian civilizations were the ancestor of western civilization, but none of them were western civilization; they were, rather, the rivals and the enemies of western civilization, as in the conflicts between the Greeks and Persia, which Rome eventually inherited and expanded.

Islamic civilization also has its ultimate origins in the Mesopotamian cluster, but, again, no ancient Mesopotamian civilization was Islamic civilization; the civilizations of Mesopotamia were the condition of the possibility of later Islamic civilization. And when Islamic civilization expanded, it expanded rapidly through military conquest, imposing itself as a template on subject peoples, some of which subject people resisted and some of which welcomed Islam.

The point here is that Western civilization and Islamic civilization are both complex civilizations, but we cannot compare the structure of the central projects of these two complex civilizations straight across. The relationship of the central project of Islamic civilization to the prior regional civilizations that preceded it is different from the relationship of the central project of Western civilization to the prior regional civilizations that preceded it. What is needed, then, is a taxonomy of the kinds of central project that shows each central project of a basal civilization to be related as ancestor to later more complex civilization, while naturally laying out in a schematic order the possible permutations of central projects at any level of complexity.

I literally think about this problem every day, testing new ideas and trying new combinations of ideas against the histories of actual civilizations, probing with the hope that the day will come when I crack the problem and the solution appears in its definitive form.

It is possible that no such solution exists. It may be necessary to lay out the development of every central project in planetary history as uniquely contingent and exemplifying no general laws of development and exhibiting no natural taxonomy. If this is the case, then in studying civilization from a theoretical perspective we will experience a continual tension between the empirical evidence of civilization and the theoretical pull to organize this evidence into a theory. Even in such cases we can formulate a theory, but the resulting theory will not have that kind of satisfaction that one derives from being able to carve nature at the joints — or, in this case, to carve culture at the joints.

Even within a haphazard and unsatisfying theoretical context, there can still be moments of clarity in which particular mechanisms are understood to govern a process in a reasonably lawlike manner. I hit on one of these last week, though for more complex civilizations, rather than at the crucial stage of a basal civilization complexifying into a civilizational formation that no longer constitutes a basal civilization.

I was thinking about how civilizational clusters arise from a mechanism of structural differentiation and defection or detachment from the extant central project. I will try to explain what I mean by this. Several twentieth century sociologists developed the idea of structural differentiation, and I take it that increasing structural differentiation characterizes civilizations as they become more complex. In my 2017 presentation at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress I called this the differentiation conjecture.

The structural differentiation of the institutional structure of civilization means that the conceptual framework, economic infrastructure, and central project start pulling away from each other so that social institutions once bound up in each other are increasingly loosened from each other and begin to define themselves autonomously. Institutions like education tend to become independent industries and those who populate these institutions are entirely creatures of these institutions, identifying more with the institution than with the central project, which seems increasingly distant and irrelevant. The same thing is found with the particular institutions that constitute the economic infrastructure, which increasingly sees itself as the engine that moves society forward, and does not want to be subordinate to the central project or to any of the institutions of the conceptual framework.

However, since the subsidiary institutions of the conceptual framework and the economic infrastructure were formed when the civilization was more tightly integrated, before structural differentiation began in earnest, these subsidiary institutions bear the stamp, as it were, of the central project, and the individuals who populate these subsidiary institutions continue to feel the familiarity of these traces of the central project that remain within their world, which is nevertheless increasingly circumscribed by the immediate institutions in which they are personally involved.

When a new central project appears within the economic infrastructure, or within the conceptual framework, and then separates itself as a distinct civilization, even as it is separating itself it retains features of its former association with the central project from which it is defecting. If this process is iterated, a number of civilizations will radiate away from the founding civilization of a cluster, each of them preserving something of the original civilization, and thus being connected historically, geographically, and institutionally to the founding civilization of the cluster, or some derived civilization of the cluster.

It is the more general and abstract features of the central project that are retained, while the more specific and contingent features, especially those that demanded particular sacrifices and defined loyalties, give way to other specific and contingent loyalties that are closer to home than the former central project, that has become distant due to structural differentiation, and therefore is all the more easy to detach oneself from. Thus the central project of the cluster comes into being distinct from the central project of a particular civilization. The central project of a particular civilization, which commands existential loyalties (people will fight and die for it), is not and cannot be the central project of a cluster, and the central project of a cluster is not and cannot be the central project of a particular civilization.

Similarly considerations apply, mutatis mutandis, for the emergence of a central project from a series of civilizations. Again, the central project of the series consists of the more general and abstract elements of the central projects of particular civilizations, and the central project of the series is not and cannot be the central project of a particular civilization within a series, and vice versa.

So here we have at least a two-stage hierarchy of kinds of central projects — the central projects of particular civilizations, and the central projects of clusters and series, both of which latter are to be found at a level of greater abstraction and generality than the central projects of particular civilizations. But it is a long way from this kind of observation to get to the point of being able to define the exact kind of abstraction and generality that defines the central project of a cluster or a series, and to be able to extrapolate this abstraction and generality to further kinds of central projects.

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Nick Nielsen

Nick Nielsen

One Man Think Tank

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