An exchange with conservative Swedish permaculturalist Øyvind Holmstad on the concept of “civilization”

Monuments to permanent unnature: The Egyptian Pyramids

I recently had an exchange with Øyvind Holmstad, a blogger and self-described conservative permaculturalist, on the subject of my reflections on the idea of “civilization,” which I posted not too long ago.  The only edits I made are grammatical.  Øyvind’s comments will appear in normal font, aligned to the left, while my responses will appear in goldish-orange, indented once to the right.

“…as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”[62]”

I’ve really never thought of this distinction between culture and civilization as outlined in your article. If civilization really means technological control of nature, I don’t want civilization. But I think the alternative is not barbarism, but permaculture, applying the “technologies of life” to live in symbiosis with nature. So probably we’re better off with a permanent culture (permaculture) than with civilization.

I think I should work these thoughts into an article for the PRI-institute some day. Thanks for offering me this new insight!

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:07 am |

No problem. Though I would again stress that the opposition of culture to civilization was usually invoked by right-wing nationalists, if not outright fascists. I think that is why Adorno, Elias, and others objected to any sort of hard-and-fast line of separation between them.

Also, “civilization” is usually contrasted to “barbarism.” Only under barbaric conditions is it contrasted to “culture.” The concept usually opposed to “culture” is “nature,” as structuralist anthropology taught us long ago.  Permaculture could thus be seen to signify a state of permanent unnature.  It is humanity’s lot to cultivate the earth.  In a different key, “culture” may be seen to be humanity’s mastery over nature. “Civilization,” by contrast, would be humanity’s self-conscious mastery of its own activities (i.e., freedom).But I imagine you and I would have very different ideas as to the extent of that cultivation.

Ross Wolfe said this on June 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |

Thanks again for very interesting viewpoints and information! All this is brand new thoughts to me, so I anyway have to digest it a long time before I eventually write my article. Have you written other essays on this subject, or do you have some good ones to recommend? I don’t know what to name my article. Maybe “Permaculture, Nature and Civilization”?By the way, I’m not an academical so I can come up with whatever crazy ideas I like without influencing my career, I see this as my advantage. Anyway, if you had read “The Nature of Order” you would have known that Alexander has documented by empirical findings that order and wholeness in nature, art and architecture is one and the same, i.e., all nourishing art and architecture is unfolded through the same processes and laws. So I think that after “The Nature of Order” was published culture and nature are not opposites anymore.

I’ve only read “The Phenomenon of Life” yet, so I might should have finished the whole series before I eventually write my essay. I’ll have these new ideas in my mind while reading it.
Here are some of the findings documented in this work:

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |

First and foremost I identify myself as Alexandrin, after Alexander. Now that I see that Alexander has wiped out the oppositions of nature and culture, I feel even more proud of my identity. I believe this reunion of nature and culture has to be the basic of a new permanent civilization.And nothing of this I had ever thought of when I wake up this morning.

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm | 

I continued thinking about these things tonight and couldn’t help myself from starting to write my essay, so here it is:

I really don’t know if it’s of any interest for you, as I’m not full of knowledge like you. I’m just a hobby philosopher, so maybe you find it naive? But it’s a lot of naive people out there, so I’m sure some will appreciate it.

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm |

Well, Øyvind, I think if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I do find your view a little naïve. But that’s not because it’s not erudite or sophisticated enough; often erudition and sophistication conceal an underlying weakness in an argument. (For me, I think my footnoting is largely a result of an obsessive-compulsive pattern. But obviously having a bunch of footnotes doesn’t mean that my argument is right).Ultimately, I think that the question of how humanity will continue to live in this world can only be resolved through a radical restructuring of how society organizes itself. Rather, society would have to finally become capable of self-consciously organizing itself, rather than remaining unconscious and uncontrollable. This, actually, would be the truth of concepts like economy and ecology, from the Greek οἶκος (oikos, or home). The relationship between these two terms is effectively analogous to the relationship between astrology and astronomy today.There’s a beautiful bit from the young (pre-Marxist) Lukács that I think still rings true, no matter how idealistic:

Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths — ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars; the world and the self, the light and the fire, are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another, for fire is the soul of all light and all fire clothes itself in light. Thus each action of the soul becomes meaningful and rounded in this duality: complete in meaning — in sense — and complete for the senses; rounded because the soul rests within itself even while it acts; rounded because its action separates itself from it and, having become itself, finds a center of its own and draws a closed circumference round itself. ‘Philosophy is really homesickness,’ says Novalis: ‘it is the urge to be at home everywhere.’

This, ultimately, must be the end of all ecology and economics: to make humanity at home in the world once more. I don’t think that this would mean a vast simplification of human production, or a global permaculture à la Mollison or whatnot. Humanity remains alienated from nature. This alienation can only be suspended through some balance of humanizing nature, or naturalizing humanity. I think that it would have to be some combination of both, but I would hope far more the former than the latter (insofar as in nature, we remain at the mercy of forces which dwarf us).

Ross Wolfe said this on June 8, 2012 at 7:29 am |

But this means that you must find Christopher Alexander’s conclusion on his book The Timeless Way of Building, naïve too:

“When we are as ordinary as that, with nothing left in any of our actions, except what is required — then we can make towns and buildings which are as infinitely various, and peaceful, and as wild and living, as the fields of windblown grass.

Almost everybody feels at peace with nature: listening to the ocean waves against the shore, by a still lake, in a field of grass, on a windblown heath. One day, when we have learned the timeless way again, we shall feel the same about our towns, and we shall feel as much at peace in them, as we do today walking by the ocean, or stretched out in the long grass of a meadow.” – Page 549

If you find this statement by Alexander a little naïve, then I have to admit that I feel deeply honored that you look upon my view as some naïve as well.

Personally, I hope to see far more of naturalizing humanity, for example by bringing in natural structures in our building facades:

Neither do I hope that a localisation of production will mean a simplification of it.  Rather the contrary. Kevin Carson at the P2P-foundation is about writing a very promising book on this subject:

Personally, I think to reorganize ourselves needs to a large part to be organized around “game theory” derived from the “handicap principle”, i.e. organizing our activities in a way that grow the social/”emphatic” side of the “handicap principle”, which I using Star Wars terminology calls the “bright side of the force”.  Today’s capitalism and city planning almost entirely grows the “dark  side of the force,” like isolating people in Le Corbusier’s “tower in the park.” I find this excessively destructive, while Alexander’s pattern 37, (left marrow) is perfectly aligned with growing the “bright side.” For me this is naturalizing humanity:

The “handicap principle” was established by the Israeli scientist Amotz Zahavi after studying the Arabian Babbler in the Sinai Desert, and I find it immensely promising, and aligned with several Alexandrine patterns.

Thanks for your response and taking the time to read my article!

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm | 

I cannot help but be reminded of Marx’s brilliant critical insight into Feuerbach’s neo-Romantic ruminations on the supposed peace and tranquility one experiences in community with “nature.” Feuerbach, disgusted with the filth and soot of the industrial cities, fled to the countryside, where he contemplated the “natural simplicity” and appreciation human beings feel when surrounded by a natural setting. The specific object of his most sublime contemplations was a cherry blossom (prunus serrulata, I believe), which he commended for its beauty, untouched by the hand of mankind.

Marx pointed out, of course, that this particular species of cherry had actually been imported centuries ago from Japan, through trans-oceanic commerce. And so it was not that Feuerbach was appreciating some pristine bit of nature, apart from human influence; rather, it was only by virtue of human influence acting in history that he was able to sit there and appreciate it at all:

In reality and for the practical materialist, i.e. the communist, it is a question of revolutionizing the existing world, of practically attacking and changing existing things. When occasionally we find such views with Feuerbach, they are never more than isolated surmises and have much too little influence on his general outlook to be considered here as anything else than embryos capable of development. Feuerbach’s conception of the sensuous world is confined on the one hand to mere contemplation of it, and on the other to mere feeling; he says “Man” instead of “real historical man.” “Man” is really “the German.” In the first case, the contemplation of the sensuous world, he necessarily lights on things which contradict his consciousness and feeling, which disturb the harmony he presupposes, the harmony of all parts of the sensuous world and especially of man and nature. To remove this disturbance, he must take refuge in a double perception, a profane one which only perceives the “flatly obvious” and a higher, philosophical, one which perceives the “true essence” of things. He does not see how the sensuous world around him is, not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of theactivity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and its intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs. Even the objects of the simplest “sensuous certainty” are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse. The cherry-tree, like almost all fruit-trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age it has become “sensuous certainty” for Feuerbach.

Incidentally, when we conceive things thus, as they really are and happened, every profound philosophical problem is resolved, as will be seen even more clearly later, quite simply into an empirical fact. For instance, the important question of the relation of man to nature (Bruno [Bauer] goes so far as to speak of “the antitheses in nature and history” (p. 110), as though these were two separate “things” and man did not always have before him an historical nature and a natural history) out of which all the “unfathomably lofty works” on “substance” and “self-consciousness” were born, crumbles of itself when we understand that the celebrated “unity of man with nature” has always existed in industry and has existed in varying forms in every epoch according to the lesser or greater development of industry, just like the “struggle” of man with nature, right up to the development of his productive powers on a corresponding basis. Industry and commerce, production and the exchange of the necessities of life, themselves determine distribution, the structure of the different social classes and are, in turn, determined by it as to the mode in which they are carried on; and so it happens that in Manchester, for instance, Feuerbach sees only factories and machines, where a hundred years ago only spinning-wheels and weaving-rooms were to be seen, or in the Campagna of Rome he finds only pasture lands and swamps, where in the time of Augustus he would have found nothing but the vineyards and villas of Roman capitalists. Feuerbach speaks in particular of the perception of natural science; he mentions secrets which are disclosed only to the eye of the physicist and chemist; but where would natural science be without industry and commerce? Even this pure natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men. So much is this activity, this unceasing sensuous labour and creation, this production, the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists, that, were it interrupted only for a year, Feuerbach would not only find an enormous change in the natural world, but would very soon find that the whole world of men and his own perceptive faculty, nay his own existence, were missing. Of course, in all this the priority of external nature remains unassailed, and all this has no application to the original men produced by generatio aequivoca [spontaneous generation]; but this differentiation has meaning only insofar as man is considered to be distinct from nature. For that matter, nature, the nature that preceded human history, is not by any means the nature in which Feuerbach lives, it is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin [!!]) and which, therefore, does not exist for Feuerbach.

Certainly Feuerbach has a great advantage over the “pure” materialists in that he realises how man too is an “object of the senses.” But apart from the fact that he only conceives him as an “object of the senses, not as sensuous activity,” because he still remains in the realm of theory and conceives of men not in their given social connection, not under their existing conditions of life, which have made them what they are, he never arrives at the really existing active men, but stops at the abstraction “man,” and gets no further than recognizing “the true, individual, corporeal man,” emotionally, i.e. he knows no other “human relationships” “of man to man” than love and friendship, and even then idealised. He gives no criticism of the present conditions of life. Thus he never manages to conceive the sensuous world as the total living sensuous activity of the individuals composing it; and therefore when, for example, he sees instead of healthy men a crowd of scrofulous, overworked and consumptive starvelings, he is compelled to take refuge in the “higher perception” and in the ideal “compensation in the species,” and thus to relapse into idealism at the very point where the communist materialist sees the necessity, and at the same time the condition, of a transformation both of industry and of the social structure.

As far as Feuerbach is a materialist he does not deal with history, and as far as he considers history he is not a materialist. With him materialism and history diverge completely, a fact which incidentally is already obvious from what has been said.

There is truth, in part, to the nature/culture dichotomy, but it is precisely an historical truth, and nothing more. Positing a strict divide between humanity in nature is impossible.

This is something I’ve touched on in the past, so I won’t rehash what I wrote over a year ago on the subject. Regarding “A Pattern Language,” I understand what it was attempting to do by decentralizing architecture. Alexander is probably the best expression of this idea, which has since been justified using all sorts of terrible postmodernist/post-structuralist tropes. Fittingly, he describes the supposedly “timeless” nature of these patterns, which tend to reprise structuralist ideas about linguistics. I’m more a fan of the modernists, while understanding their historical limitations. I could expand on this a bit, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Ross Wolfe said this on June 9, 2012 at 10:34 am |

Thanks for your link and the quote from Marx, I’ll look better at them both later. I don’t really understand if you mean that postmodernism and Alexander has any relationship? Personally I don’t think so. Anyway, modernism is in its core a break with history, spirituality, science, society and humanity:

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm |

5 thoughts on “An exchange with conservative Swedish permaculturalist Øyvind Holmstad on the concept of “civilization”

  1. Hei!

    I’m not Swedish, it’s just that I’ve posted several quotas from a fantastic book I’m just about reading by the Danish author Morten Skriver, which is translated into a free e-book in Swedish, named “Skönhetens Befrielse”, which means “The Freedom of Beauty”:

    So I’m actually a Norwegian. And I’ve no other choice than being a conservative as I’m the first born son of a conservative family, and the first born always follows the tradition of the family.

    Elementary behavioral biology states that the first born in a family follows the family traditions while the second born opposes to these, so if I was born in a liberal family I would have become liberal as the first born, or conservative if I happened to be the second born.

    Still, I feel very much attracted to classical liberalism, while I hate modernist liberalism:

    But this is not so strange, as real conservatism and classical liberalism are both about creating a strong civic society with respect for the human scale, something I think only can be achieved using the pattern technology of Christopher Alexander. In short, we need to cut of the “invisible hand” and replace it with the Pattern Language.

    Personally I don’t think Alexander looks upon the Egyptian Pyramids as “permanent unnature”. But I’ve just read the first book in the NofO-series yet, and it’s a while ago. I just ordered The Phenomenon of Life and The Luminous Ground, but will not receive them before in 10-12 weeks. I could have bought them in Oslo, but their price is exactly the double of

    I’m amazed you put up our discussion thread, considering you live in the world’s intellectual capital and are surrounded by intellectual heavy weighters.

    I’ll end with a quota from Alexander:

    “Anything that does not have this drive toward simplicity cannot, really, be taken seriously as a living process. And this is a very though criterion, a hard-task master. Consider, for example, the buildings and furnishings that are rich with “patterns.” What I mean, here, are the growing number of objects, rooms, houses, buildings, where architects have tried to overcome the stark and deathly character of the 20th century. Now, too often, they replace the starkness with something too lush, too fruity, too rich, too much like a wedding cake, or sickly cream-filled dessert. Although many architects who seek living structure most genuinely do their best to reach it, the multilayered pattern-filled environments which people make in their desire to do better, often do not have enough cold stark simplicity to have been generated by living process – and end up merely sentimental, not something which can ennoble, or deepen, a quiet and examined life.

    Economy, simplicity, drive the formation of ice on a pond. They drive the formation of flames in the fire. And they drive the formation and simplicity of what is most valuable in the sparseness of a simple room that contains hundreds of complex relationships boiled away almost to nothing, leaving only a quiet which approximates the void.”

    “The Process of Creating Life” by Christopher Alexander, page 491.

    I think this is what the Egyptian Pyramides are all about, simplicity, they are simply reflecting the desert landscape they are part of. Alexander also uses the desert landscape as a metaphor for the 14’th property of life, Simplicity and Inner Calm:;col1

  2. “The Nature of Order is not only a summa summarum of what Oxford University Press has called “The World of Christopher Alexander”, but it is surely one of the most ambitious books ever published. If its profound argument — that order in both nature and in what we build are essentially the same — is ultimately understood and accepted by serious readers, it may prove to be one of the most consequential works Oxford has published in all its 500 years.”

    William McClung
    special project editor for Oxford University Press
    former senior editor of the University of California Press

    I’m sure the Egyptians were very well aware of that order in nature and in what we build are essentially the same. Still, the pyramids have a deep contrast too, according to Alexander’s 9’th property of life, contrast. It’s a deep contrast between the eternity of the pyramids and the daily reorganizing of the sand dunes in the surrounding deserts. Like that life is ever changing, while death is forever. If the pyramids were not situated in a desert land this contrast would not have been that stark.

  3. I came to think about that why modernist architecture has become everywhere dominant, both iconic and everyday dreadful industrial typologies, is because it’s pure unnature, which mean it’s the purest expression of culture as modern man has come to understand it.

    There is nothing left of nature in modernist architecture, as it has abandoned the 15 properties, the three laws of structural order, vertical and horizontal compression, its embracing of anti-gravity-anxiety and so on. It’s really a pity that culture has become synonymous with anti-nature, I would say that culture these days is nothing than pure hatred against nature.

    The leaders of our world see it as their mission to destroy nature with all possible means, as they see the completely destruction of our world as the victory of culture.

    Permaculture is the opposite of all this. In our world view nature and culture is one. Is there any wonder the world hate us?

  4. I have read this exchange, and accompanying it I went back and examined your essay “Man and Nature,” all which I find unsatisfactory and would like to counterpose The Critique of Science authored by my dear late friend, Will Barnes. You will find it linked here: http://intcssc/

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