What is civilization doing

   Introduction to the early modern period  
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Early Modern Theories
Modernization - civilization - disciplining



3.1. Civilization theory
3.2. The example of court society


3.1. Civilization theory 

Norbert Elias (1897-1990), sociologist and cultural philosopher, had to emigrate to England in 1933. His fundamental work "On the Process of Civilization", written as early as the 1930s and first published in 1939, initially received little attention and it was only after its new edition in 1969 that it developed its pioneering impact on the cultural and human sciences.

Elias understands societies as “figurations of interdependent people” and asks how such figurations shape the psychological disposition of individuals, who in turn change the figurations (metaphor of dance); “Sociogenesis” and “psychogenesis” are mutually dependent.

The processes of market economy interdependence and the centralization of state power lead to the “lengthening of the chains of action” and the condensation of the social “interdependence network”, ie the consequences of individual action become more extensive in terms of time and space and therefore require complex behavioral coordination, long-term calculation, control of spontaneous affects and Subordination of current inclinations to long-term goals. Self-control of the individual takes the place of external constraints. The inner threshold of shame and embarrassment is increased (tabooing of physical needs, refined table, sleeping and bathing habits, etc.). This “civilization” takes place first in the upper classes, whose members have to control themselves in order to be able to control others. The downward diffusion of the new standards of behavior devalues ​​them as a social distinguishing feature and forces the elite to further refine them.

3.2. The example of court society 

Elias describes this as an example for the French court of Louis XIV, whose, from a modern economic bourgeois perspective, he declares irrational behavioral standards (submission to a subtle ceremony, waste, etc.) as specifically "courtly rationality". The king is able to eliminate and "domesticate" the nobility as a power competition by monopolizing the economic and prestige opportunities at court. The nobility, who want to preserve their prominent social existence, their “honor”, ​​can only do so at court. The courtiers - like the king himself - are compelled to maintain perfect affect control (which must not appear as such, but must appear "natural") in order to achieve their goals.


© 2003 by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger • mail: [email protected]