An Interview with Norbert Elias

A person worth listening to.

Note: if you watch it, there will be varying "black" gaps, during which questions were asked. Up to then, chill or fast-forward, according to the process by which you were civilized. ;) When you reach 10:42 and it goes black, it's done. I think it's meant to be much longer, but the streaming was messed up.

What's there is great, anyway, especially the points about adopting or creating a value system based on flux, not stasis -- on reality, that is, not on desire (neo-Epicurianism, anyone?) -- and the notion that the increasing emancipation of women as a central (I would say, the central) issue in modern global society.

I think Twain (and Darwin) would disagree with the "born animal/become human (maybe)" construct, but I think it holds if you grant his distinction in a nonbiological sense. The sense of what it means to be human is more like what it means to be humane. That's fine with me; hard enough to get there without having a needless argument over old-fashioned, terminological holdovers from a time when humanity was seen as "not animal" in some sense.

The other notion I had a slight problem with was that we are a less violent society. I think "we" means "realtively wealthy people in the West and wealthy people outside the West" -- or something like that. "We" is a dangerous pronoun to use. But I take his point that daily life for an increasing proportion of humanity (at least relative to most, if not all, other times on the planet) is less violent.

The problem is that in a very real sense, that safety, as Elias points out partially, is based on violence to others, whether through increased state control or through the maintenance of material advantage. And outbursts of violence are, due to increasing mastery over nature, obviously far more violent than anything thinkable in other times and places. Which is kind of a problem.

However, I take his point, with all the caveats above.

* * *

You can find (most of) the questions below (insert your own sic's):

Rob Trip: Professor Elias, you are the man of the civilisation theory. We've been talking about it all evening. Everybody seems to be preoccupied with this subject., even our prime minister Balkenende who is looking for shared values and norms. How do we do that?

Elias: There is no greater task, no other task really, than, before destroying ourselves, to find out how we can arrange our lifes in such a way that we do not constantly hurt ourselves and also gain as much pleasurable excitement and satisfaction as we can.You will rightly say, how do we do that? Right.

Rob Trip: Nowadays, everybody thinks the old days used to be better. We respected each other, listened to each other and government officials had some authority. All that seems to have changed and we all seem to be confused about it. What is your view on that?

Elias: Most of the present ways of orienting oneself are based on the wish of getting away from the continuous change in which we live. One wants to find the permanent behind all changes, whether one wants to find it in the laws of God, or in the laws of nature, or in the eternity of human existence. Our whole thinking is informed by this intense wish for permanence, for that which is unchanging. I think that as long as this is the value system which dominates our thinking we shall not be able to orientate ourselves realisticly, and I very advisedly use the term realisticly, in our world. Because we live in a world of continuous change.

Rob Trip: So you are saying that we want to keep things the way they were, while the circumstances are continuously changing and repostioning each and every one of us.

Elias: And the problem with which I from now on will deal most is the problem of increasing affect control. Because that this too is one of the elementary sources of the dynamics of societies. It revolves around the question in what way the elementary, animalic impulses of men in a society are controlled either through external control or controls to be believed external or through self controls. (And with that problem I'm going to deal now). I think the most obvious example which I can give you at the moment is the control which men have exercised for a very long time over the emotional and libidonal satisfactions of women. For a very long time parents were intent on the virginaty of their daughters as a means of control, as a means of preserving their own interest because the daughter was a valuable property in a sense, she could make a better marriage if she was a virgin and so far as the husband was concerned it was in his interest to have the monopoly of the enjoyment of her body but also he wanted to be quite sure that this property would go to his own blood as we call it. So the balance of power between the sexes found expression in the balance of power in restrains as men were very much more powerful than women. But if the balance tilts and becomes more equal the whole relationship becomes more difficult. Do not be misled by this desire for greater equality which we all share, do see that this means a much more difficult relationship, greater equality, lesser unevenness and greater restrains on all sides.

Rob Trip: That was mentioned earlier this evening: how men restrained themselves towards women in 1919. Now, if we talk about restriction and self-control: many people think that society has become tougher and more violent. Is this due to a lack of self-control?

Elias: We think it's quite terrible and we are one of the most violent times there ever were. But this is not the case. We are one of the least violent times there ever were.

Rob Trip: But professor, have you witnessed the present events? We've witnessed two political assasinations, outbursts of 'senseless' violence, as we call it, vandalism directed towards religious institutions, racist juveniles, a general fear for terror attacks. Is that your notion of one of a quiet era?

Elias: We are not aware of the fact how much more we are sheltered against violence than most previous centuries. The whole police force is engaged in trying to find the murderer. In former days probably there was neither such a police force available there was the ... and crying of the local village at the most, perhaps a century and a half ago. Today it is the whole police force. And allthough we have the feeling, and not entirely wrongly that violence and .... has a little increased as indeed it has, compared to these previous centuries I think we lead a very secure life and we are not quite conscious of that.

Rob Trip: Professor Elias, are we in fact as civilised as we tend to think?

Elias: If we speak of a civilising process one does not mean that we are civilised. Far from it. One means a change in the direction which I have just outlined. Where one is able to find satisfaction for one's emotional urges and needs in such a way that one gains from the pleasurable excitement, which they promise to give us, without hurting eachother, without doing violence to eachother and without losing control over oneself and losing one's dignity, one's own human dignity or on the other side, without falling into boredom. This is a problem which we have not yet solved.

Rob Trip: Thank you very much, Professor Elias.

Elias: I wish you all the pleasurable excitement one can have without hurting others and one's own dignity.


Norbert Elias, portret van een socioloog
Abram de Swaan en Paul van den Bos
Adviezen: prof. J. Goudsblom
© VPRO - 23 april 1975/ 2005


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