A significant portion of my work consists of critiquing arguments, decisions, and statements made by other people. But sometimes, the lens of examination is best turned inward to correct one’s own missteps. Such is the case for an article I wrote last year about the nature of degenerate behavior. In that article, I started with the dictionary definition of degeneracy as “sexual perversion” and degenerate as “having declined or become less specialized (as in nature, character, structure, or function) from an ancestral or former state”, “having sunk to a lower and usually corrupt and vicious state”, “one degraded from the normal moral standard”, and “having low moral standards; not honest, proper, or good”. From this, I concluded that degeneracy is “that which is not conducive to civilization.” In retrospect, I failed to account for the possibility that a civilization itself could be degenerate. Let us explore this possibility now.

Defining Terms

Though dictionaries are rarely capable of providing the full understanding of a word, they are an excellent place to start. Merriam-Webster defines civilization as “a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained”, “the culture characteristic of a particular time or place”, “the process of becoming civilized”, “refinement of thought, manners, or taste”, and “a situation of urban comfort”. ‘Civilized‘ is taken to mean “characterized by taste, refinement, or restraint”. Our task, then, is to contemplate how a civilization may be built upon a degenerate foundation.

The Principle of Loss

In a recent article published at Social Matter, Jérôme Bernard Grenouille contemplates the ideas of the left-wing French intellectual Georges Bataille (1897–1962), particularly his notions of expenditure, loss, and sacrifice. Bataille considers how ruling classes in pre-modern times spent fortunes on “the production of sacred things” that would serve as a rallying point for a culture through the creation and reinforcement of non-economic, immaterial, spiritual values. He criticizes modern ruling classes for engaging in what would now be called political autism; earlier, Edmund Burke denounced the same as “sophisters, economists, and calculators.” This is a valid concern; as Grenouille writes,

“Human existence cannot be merely explained by production and conservation. There are far more elusive pursuits and practices in place in all human societies. These practices may be elevated, or truly crass and depraved but they nevertheless diverge from the naive principles of utility.”

Read the entire article at ZerothPosition.com