The back of this book tells me I will be intrigued and infuriated. I dare say they are right.
John Gray is very well-read, expansively so, though this leads to a great deal of glibness that can be very distracting and arrogant. How is one supposed to react to a book that dismisses Platonic thought, Confucius, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Marx, a good chunk of liberal humanism, Christian and Islamic religion, and much progressive thought, whether Marxist, Postivist or even secular humanist, in a little less then two hundred pages? I suppose the bog-standard reaction would be awe at this breadth of knowledge and assuredness in position; my more cynical response is to start checking his sources and consider counter-attacks. Is this really an example of intellectual prowess, or vacuous disrespect for better and more original thinkers?
Straw Dogs is an easy read, but it is not an easy book, both because Gray sets out to discomfiting and because his ideas are packed tightly and come quickly. Syntactically, this book was clearly written to be read by those normally uninterested in philosophy (a danger, because his arguments often lie on rebutting or attacking much more complicated philosophers in but a few words). His chapters are short, but intensive, his arguments are multifarious and numerous; they all tie themselves together, of course, into a basic thesis that in itself has been repeated before or since in other of his books, such as Black Mass. I’ll try and summarize the main points of his book, but there is no guarantee that what I write will represent an accurate summation of everything he argued; the book is full of tiny paragraphs and page long asides that often diverge wildly from the main thrust and yet reveal something deeply relevant, usually, again, in a witty or glib way depending on your tastes. The book reads sometimes like an exercise in creating one-liners about the mechanical doom of mankind at our own irrational, animal hands.
I should remark that this book was important, personally, so far as it did make me think, sent the wheels spinning, faster then many other works I might read; perhaps because I read it twice, the impact was that much more pronounced over a short period. Perhaps the books easy tone when attempting to demolish all Western civilization’s myths made its mark; perhaps the feeling that, having read much of his source material, I was impressed by both its use and abuse. Here, a summary,
- Mankind should recognize that we are not separate from animals in any way, we are animals, destructive animals, driven by instinct, reproductive urges and the need to survive
- Our consciousness is not a unique, ordered, thoughtful, Descartian phenomena: it is a mess of conflicting actions and impulses, many of them submerged, subliminal, or so dominant as to ellipse any attempt at analysis: his conclusion is that we can never have total control over our minds and bodies, a basic component of some liberal and marxist thought, we can never be remade, remoulded or reborn, because our conscious self is the tip of a very mysterious iceberg (same goes for transhumanists, who Gray dismisses as utopians, his favourite attack slur)
- Individuals are not the most important factor of humanity, or at least, our individualism is as much an illusion as our conscious control, because both rest on a false pretense that we are conscious, intelligent, different from animals and separate from one another
- Western philosophy, ethics, morals and religion seek to erase that point completely, and to emphasize our individuality and our ‘rationality’ and ‘will’ versus instinctual, mechanical animals, despite the fact that we are not different from them
- Additionally, morality is a construct that excuses our fears and helps our vanity; morality does not exist because, at heart, we are animals, clever yes, organised yes, but our morality does not just come in from the cold, it is a veil we put over ourselves willingly to hide the truth
- Our technology has always been beyond our control, it has always provided benefits behind our vision and disasters from our nightmares; technology, also, is independent of morality, that is, technological progress is not synonymous with moral progress
- Human beings are homo rapiens, we plunder destroy and desecrate with little impunity, and this has always been and will be: we cannot be redeemed, because there is nothing to redeem, we are just well organized locusts, and Gray quotes Lovelock approvingly
- Christianity created the idea of purpose or meaning in life, deeper then just survival, and of ‘saving’ humanity, both ideas being wrong and foolish, because we are animals after all: we seek to escape from death through this creation of purpose and meaning, because the West is the civilization most afraid of death and the end, because of our conception of linear time and failure to include ourselves as part of nature
- We are fixated on what ought to be, rather then what is, and so try and redeem, save or adjust the world: this is the ideological project of science, this is the project of Marxism, this is the project of liberal capitalism, and it is stupid. because, again, there is nothing to save
- There is no such thing as progress, that is, of things getting better: science and technology may improve, but the human animal will not; purpose does not exist independent of human construction, history and civilizations have no grand plan, no superior march towards glorious progress, nor can that purpose be a moral redemption of mankind
- Various criticisms of free market liberals, leftists, and Western civilization, as compared especially to Hindu or Chinese philosophy
As you may be able to tell, Straw Dogs is not a feel good piece of writing, it is no affirmation or support for our way of life in any way. Instead, Gray seeks to eviscerate the foundations of liberal democratic capitalism, of its socialist alternative, of the religious impulse of monotheism to save the world: he links every project to make the world better to massive death, destruction and human misery, and saves special bile for Fascism and Stalinism (though all Communism is smeared as well) because they were the most extreme form of utopian project that sough to save or remake man in a new image, without realizing what science, and Darwin apparently, told us: man is an animal, a collection of genes trying to reproduce and survive, an animal in which our main motor functions and impulses are beyond conscious control, except in a minority of disciplined humans, and that any project, any, that aims to ameliorate the human condition falls against the basic caveat that there is nothing to be saved. He boils everything down, as well, into religious impulses: the Enlightenment was a Christian impulse, for instance, sharing the same faith in human redemption and moral progress, so to is Communism, nothing but a delusion. This concept, Gray asserts, and rightly I think, remains with us today.
There is, true, very much about this book that a reader could agree with. The last fourth of the book is an extended criticism of the modern world order, of free market fundamentalism in which the market is given the role of Messiah, only to devastate vast swathes of the world and accelerate a trend that many beside Gray find worrying: the rich play games while wars are fought out by the poor, food and energy become scarcer; he criticizes the war on terror, and the idea that terrorists are medievalists, instead arguing that they are thoroughly modern; that technology and overpopulation has very well made it possible that indiscriminate mass slaughter will become de jure across the world.
Gray is also quit right to criticize the idea that we are always moving forward, always getting better, except for in a technological sense; his discussion of Nazism, for instance, though we don’t like it much, is that it was as modern as anything else in our world, and not a moral regression into barbarism, but an expression of the netherworld of the Enlightenment, heir to its grandest philosophical , social and scientific advancements. His criticism against Exopians, and other transhumanists, despite his quoting approvingly from Kurtzweil and other futurists on occasion, is incisive: “These cybernauts seek to make the thin trickle of consciousness – our shallowest fleeting sensation – permanent. But we are not embrained phantoms encased in flesh. Being embodied is our nature as earth born creatures.” To him, they end up ’embodying’ the same problem: the same attempt to separate our essence from our existence, or rather, to assume that one can possibly precede or follow from the other.
His critiques all descend from a scientific outlook: his attack on absolutist reason, of the messianic hopes of progress, science and religion, of the pretensions to purpose and meaning for sapient animals, of our pretensions to control and steer the Earth, and to be above nature, our fear of death when it should pose no threat, our resentment of our muddy, unconscious mind. In a way, John Gray is a popularizer of a scientific outlook, one he claims repeatedly as Darwinist, that goes far beyond the scientists he quotes: the humanism of E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins is rejected by Gray as well, and his outlook is probably closest to James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia Theory of the Earth, that the Earth acts like a living system and that humanity, in its vast numbers and rapacious qualities, is a disease. It is not that Gray is anti-human, or even against our culture and society; he quotes Fernando Pessoa, Robinson Jeffers and Rex Warner with obvious joy, and yet remains fixed on the damaging myth propagated, he believes, by Western civilization that we are separate and superior to nature, and are imbued with a special role to play, to save, redeem and remake ourselves, which Gray steadfastly opposes.
And before anyone accuses him of nihilism, which has happened often enough and loudly, Gray dismisses nihilism, again, glibly, and denigrates atheism just a little as well, arguing it is in fact the last refuge of Christian values (but he does so slyly, in single short paragraphs, and then moves on: some straw dogs are clearly not as fit to burn as others) So, don’t call Gray a nihilist: he isn’t meaningless, because mankind had no meaning other then our existence..or so he claims. And again, Gray apparently still believes in some kind of guide to right action, in the Daoist Chinese sense, of dispassion, thought and contemplation.
Note: this is as close as Gray ever gets to taking a ‘positive’ stance, as opposed to one that just harps on others.
I am troubled by his book, but not by its implications about humanity, that it is an animal and nothing more, not progressing, not evolving, not all powerful, destructive, near-sighted, irrational, afraid and superstitious. His conclusions are not so radical as that; I’ve heard them for years and once believed them, once held that nothing would be better for the Earth then our own extinction. Reinhold Neibuhr and Nietzche, for instance, are older thinkers I’m familiar with, amongst many others, with similar ideas. Frankly, the debate on this is large enough that searching for Giorgio Agamben’s book The Open: Man and Animal, on Amazon.ca brought up many other books by authors like Cary Wolfe and Donna J. Harraway on this subject. So, Gray’s basic thesis is no revelation. I’ve heard them as well from university students and acquaintances, who are sometimes even more extreme then Gray: man is an animal, afraid of everything, and thus prone to every possible form of delusion to escape; nothing is worth doing, therefore, and soon this philosophy of life becomes an excuse for disengagement from serious human activity and a descent into pleasant hedonism (a gross generalization, I realize, but sometimes trotted out underneath all the postmodern hijinks).
But as I checked sources, or arrived in sections where I knew as much as the author, if not more, I found problems, like his insistence that China gave up ocean-going boats (the government did, but not individual merchants or trading groups or even Fukien or Cantonese coastal peoples), or his over-enthusiastic interest in Taiost philosophy, that succeeds in obscuring the hierarchical, ordered, obsessed with immortality mindset typical of the religion as a whole. He cites dubious populists like Jared Diamond and Noel Perrin, whose conclusions have been seriously criticized or even outright rejected in Perrin’s case. I could object to some of his assertions that Christianity has always valued free will throughout its history, or that it believes in a moral progression view of history, which is reproduced and expanded upon in secular European thought (I always assumed, from my own readings or lectures from my profs, that Christianity does value a linear concept of history, as moral drama, but it is lapsadarian and non-temporal, that is, aside from Christ’s death, nothing seperates Alexander the Great from Alfred the Great ten centuries later). These points, however, are nitpicking, they don’t actually criticize the main points of his argument.
Is it even possible for me to criticize Gray? Well, I’ll try and cite examples of the kind of logical thinking using dubious sources and conclusions. At the beginning of Straw Dogs, John Gray calls human beings homo rapiens, as I mentioned before, the raping hominid: I’m sure he was trying to be funny there. His accusation is that humanity has always been a monstrous, brutal killing machine, wiping out all the mammoths ten thousand years ago in an orgy of over exploitation typical of humanity as a whole throughout history. Except there is no scientific consensus on what killed the mammoth, and the most recent and exhaustive study, “Climate Change, Humans, and the Extinction of the Woolly Mammoth” by Nogues-Bravo et al. in the PLos journal, contends that human hunting wiped out the mammoths only after sudden climate change had weakened their numbers significantly. He uses the mammoth example to claim, therefore, that industrialization, advanced societies, pollution and over population are not important factors in mankind’s destruction of the environment, despite later repeating the opposite and opining that humanity could find a way to live with nature, only if most of us had died, our numbers reduced and contraceptive technology widely implemented. For the bit about mammoths, he uses Diamond as a source: again, fairly dubious using a tertiary source, that is a book two tiers separate from the actual research!
Gray seems to share Diamond’s enthusiasm, in “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race“, (or Paul Shepard’s Tender Carnivore) for hunter gatherers, pointing out that hunter gatherers were more knowledgeable about their surroundings, lived poor lives in materials but rich in spirits and though vulnerable worked less, lived longer and were healthier then most farmers until the modern age. Except that without the switch to intensive agriculture, they never would have written these books; but that is a petty counter. Gray contrasts the favorable mental outlook of Hunter gatherers as compared to our own civilization, and then berates Mark and Engels for not understanding that these societies embraced the only ‘true communism’, primitive, that they had messianically placed in the future. Except that Marx and Engels did recognize this fact, and spent the last years of their life studying it; this helped to originate the idea that as human groups adopt societies, and as those societies continue to grow and expand in complexity, as agricultural surpluses extracted through terror, force and protection, as new modes of production develop, new forms of social organization and domination also develop. This Marxist understanding of anthropology and sociology is fundamental to the thought and conclusions of someone like Diamond, it is at the heart of why he thinks farming was a bad idea, because as a new mode of production it allowed greater exploitation, and yet I’m not sure Gray has absorbed this. Or doesn’t dwell on it much. A rather Utopian project, imagining hunter gatherers thus?
Besides which, modernity, which Gray dwells on as a falseness and blames for considerable amounts of death, is a condition of industrialization and scientific growth, which puts to shame the idea that we have always been enormously destructive; quite the opposite, fearful creatures we might be, but only advanced technological, economic and social resources have enabled killing and exploitation of resources on a large scale.
Another criticism I could make regards his definition of Nazism and Communism as utopian. Gray defines genocide, the organized death camps and railways, as modern, and that is true, just as racist categories that facilitated Holocaust are modern…but is it simply scale that makes “genocide” modern? Or was it the sense that the destruction they meted out was utopian, a much more debatable opinion? Gray argues that ideological redemption was behind genocide, and certainly, Hitler and his colleagues believed in a “redemptive” anti-Semitism, but how far down did this filter to his executioners? Does a focus on ideology and ideological logic explain why Pol Pot followed a path that no other Communist party did? I found it hard to belief that Pol Pot’s policies flowed logically from an ultra-radicalism, yet it is clear that both the Khmer Rouge were a small and faction ridden group, and one that acted within a specific cultural and temporal framework: the Communist party had to be purged frequently to maintain discipline, and the Khmer were petty bourgeois city dwellers, with little understanding of the conditions of the peasantry they moved with. More importantly, emptying the cities and abolishing money does not strike me as clever plans to destroy the ancien regime while following Democratic Kamuchea’s own path to industrial modernity; they seem apocalyptic in a far different way.
And that is at least one reason why Gray makes me uneasy. Many of his arguments sound very convincing, but closer analysis reveals cracks and inconsistencies, or at least the kind of errors a history-trained or other discipline trained thinker might find; it doesn’t mean that Gray can’t or doesn’t make very compelling points, but that the material he uses to bolster these points is not rock solid or always convincing. He cites Malthus approvingly, a man who argued that Irish famine victims deserved to die, to demonstrate that we now live in a time of overpopulation and that the crash in our numbers is coming as surely as the sun rises: true, but he leaves little doubt that we shouldn’t resist this, even if we could. He cites Freud approvingly too, without heeding generations of anti-Freudian criticism; he praises the Surrealists but downplays their own commitment to revolutionary politics, to changing mankind by accepting the subconscious. Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, all recieve some praise; is there NOTHING in the Western canon but Schopenhauer and Santayana worth standing up for? Against, reductionism: no, because we are animals after all.
This makes it Easy to discourage opposition. It is a daunting task. But Gray peddles in the same easy generalizations and sweeping reductions of humanity so favourable amongst thinkers I regularly read and end up disliking. Besides which, how am I, who believes in socialism, in organization, in fighting for a better mankind, or at least the best conditions to allow our screwed animal brains to not be tormented by the exploitation of the market and state, supposed to take Gray’s criticism of well…everything?
But Gray does not really offer any alternatives to his criticism: the suggestion, from a few mentions, seems to be that the man of contemplation, not action, is best, that the hunter gatherer is superior to settled man, that enjoying one’s life is better then constantly striving for what is beyond one’s reach. It’s a nice sounding philosophy, but a privileged, elitist one as well, because how many of us can or ever will be able to be a man of contemplation rather then action? Can one be such a thing and still have to work three jobs? Shouldn’t I have some ambition? Does it even matter that we are animals, especially with all the research into social behavior in apes that indicates social cooperation and mutual sacrifice are adaptive strategies as surely as warfare and rape? He quotes the famous book Homo Ludens at one point; cue the refrain…did my relatives die for a game, Mr. Gray? Did so many of ancestors die for a better world, only for you to say ‘it’s all a game, you fucked monkeys!’ Did they die because we are stupid, afraid animals, as you write in your plush penthouse and disclaim, ironically, that you are not nihilist and yet don’t offer any sort of alternative to your criticism? Am I even being fair?
Ultimately, I will have to accept the existentialist resolve toward purpose in life. History and human civilization may not have a external purpose, or a mission, or a cause; but if we are beings that are conscious, in any way, and yet animals, then should we not make our own purposes, day by day, instead of letting you tell us they don’t exist or let the Christians tell us only God gives us heart?
I for one have a vested interest in this civilization, and I intend to enjoy it and fight to make it better while it lasts.
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