Skip to main content

Image from Mittelalterliche Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg (The Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg, c.1480). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Image from Mittelalterliche Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg (The Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg, c.1480). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Image from Mittelalterliche Hausbuch von Schloss Wolfegg (The Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg, c.1480). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Civilising Process is a year-long programme of exhibitions and events at Gasworks inspired by German sociologist Norbert Elias’s (1897-1990) eponymous 1939 book. Running from October 2013 to November 2014, the programme comprises five exhibitions and a series of related events.

Elias’s book looks at the changing social practices through which Western Europeans have come to embody and sought to express their developing conceptions of courtesy, civility and civilisation since the end of the Middle Ages, as well as the accompanying transformations that these behavioural changes have brought about in social structures. Throughout he argues that our modern-day behaviours, bodily functions, gestures, tastes, manners, codes of etiquette, taboos and emotional expressions still follow a template originating in the royal courts of the Middle Ages. Since then he asserts that these social practices have been only gradually transformed by stricter thresholds of shame and repugnance, the proliferation of rules and prohibitions that now more commonly manifest as self-constraints, and the “pushing behind the scenes” of bodily functions.

Over the years, critics have often spurned Elias’s theory of civilising processes for implying a finite and Eurocentric process of betterment, which has historically left behind the ill-mannered, uncivilised or underdeveloped members of society. While these are not wholly groundless claims, Elias in fact understood the civilising process to be a many-sided and ongoing process, which is constantly interrupted by bursts of “de-civilisation”. It is precisely this ebb and flow of a historically constructed view of Western European culture, as well as its repercussions, that this project sets out to critically explore.

Throughout The Civilising Process Gasworks is working with invited artists to tackle a wide range of issues raised by this book in an attempt to understand their relevance for contemporary debates and practices. How, for instance, is technology currently affecting our manners and behaviour? How has the etiquette of Europeans been expressed through their changing habits of the body, attitudes to sex and styles of dress? How has social history been articulated through food and embodied through eating? How were the bodies of Europeans themselves colonised before their colonisation of elsewhere had even begun? And how might studying this history of the self help us to better understand subsequent processes of colonisation and globalisation? What can we learn from leapfrogging debates on capitalism and going right back to the Middle Ages? And is Elias’s book still relevant at all 75 years on?

The Civilising Process included the exhibitions The Lustful Turk, Late Barbarians, Mouthfeel and Dependency and Some Are Smarter than Others.

--

Thanks to Rosalie Allain, Joel Furness, Dr John Goodwin, Sidsel Meineche Hansen, Dr Jason Hughes, Prof Stephen Mennell, Helena Vilalta and Roman Vasseur for their great help and support in developing this project.

Special thanks to Prof Geof Rayner for first introducing the work of Norbert Elias.