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Archive for April, 2008

From a foot note by William George Aston, from his translation of the Nihon Shoki, (1896) a court history compiled before 720 on orders of the Japanese tenno and court, and containing both a highly skeptical history of the Gods and a careful and largely mythical history of the tenno, or Emperors, from 660 BC to about 692 AD (of course, not measured in the name of Christ):

“The Be, or hereditary corporations, were a peculiar institution of Old Japan (ie, active from the 3rd to 8th centuries).  This term has been rather inadequately rendered by clan, tribe or guild.  But they differed from clans, as it was never supposed that there was any ties of blood-relationship between the various classes or members.  And if we call them guilds, we lose track of their hereditary character, and of the fact that they were essentially branches of the government.  Perhaps if we imagine the staff of on of our dockyards, in which the director and officials would be drawn from the governing class, the artisans being serfs, and the whole being more or less hereditary in station, we shall have a tolerable idea of a Be.  The origin of some, as the Imibe (ritual hereditary scapegoats) is lost in antiquity but many were instituted in historical times and for all manner of objects.  There were Be of weavers (Oribe), of figured-stuff weavers (Ayabe) of executioners (Osakabe) of fishers (Amabe) of farmers (Tanabe) and of clay workers (Hasebe or Hahibe).  The sole function of some was to perpetuate the name of Emperors and Empresses who died without children.   The local habitation of these corporations was also called Be, just as our word admiralty may mean either the body of officials or the building where they discharge their duties..  This accounts for the frequency with which this terminations occurs in names of places.   A familiar example is Kobe…Kobe is for Kami-Be, and meant originally the group of peasants allotted to the service of a Deity (of Ikuta?) and hence the village where they lived.”

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He wouldn’t share with e., though she must have guessed < < I have > > that he had no
direction but that which changed the city around him, though these boulevards, with the spire of
her tenement behind him, were far too open.  Here, the dirt came down to wash, as the mandarin
saying went, and v. could pass the people with no crown upon their head.  He sat down on a
bench.  Pigeons with microscope eyes peered at him before being preyed upon by mechanoid rats.
Faces, bodies, lean necks and brightly coloured torsos shuffled past, so many, so similar, train
windows blurred together so that not one is a definable entity but a succession of the same, faces,
bodies, brown, black, dark, the same slight forward slant, the hump of defeat, rattling silently as
their train moves past; so much time passing, with v. immobile with drooping eyes.  Beside him, in
the shadows beneath the cusp, crouched tattooed day men, eagre for the work, and young women
with twisted hair and stripped socks who would sweep the street before you or handle your data
on a stream by stream basis.  Two of them, pierced with conch shell eyes, watched him from their
pedestal, a crouching Singapore lion painted like the Whore of Babylon, and unnevered, he moved
on, his warm wrappings twisting back with bitter resignation their tiny, prying inquiries: sex
would do when real work failed.
A few corners on, his feet tracing subantartic islands in the dust with low gravity ease.  He
let through, selectively, the breeze, as it picked its way past the densities of buildings taut like
tendons, images of nairobi in flames and new kinds of water racing through the air, hermes high
with the sacral knowledge of the new gods.  Ranters shrieked from along their special podiums,
dishevelled young men and naked, earth goddess women, preaching with uncanny truth and
wisdom university learned idioms, of revolution, guerillas, squids and eco-terrorism, but wrapped
in the ghosts of passenger pigeons, they became a spectacle that drew a lump of youth who
cheered and threw spectral bombs.

Two spirits spoke to each other in gargantuan shape across
the main plaza as V. came onwards, Castor and Pollux arguing for the end of war, or the build-up
of the nuclear state, probably caught a stream from a century past.  Across from the ranters, the
howlers, macabre beasts the size of horses with elongated donkey jaws and blinded eyes, sitting
on their reptile haunches that steam with imputs and the savage assaults of free radicals socialists,
howling at subsonic, high sonic and human audible truths about the decrepit protector state and
the need for sacrifice against the Enemy.  They hypnotized passerby and pigeons.
Through the arcades and nano stalls, V. bowed to the high bannermen as they rode past on
their great fleas, full of pomp and energy as they towered twice human height over those around.
His false crown meant he only had to stop and nod < < bastards, tyrants, pests, parasites > > < <
all a revealed truth but don’t chat here > > Others, the brown swarming mass fell to their knees,
as Gurkhas floated past weapons armed, the bannermen a flame with the elegant multi-limbed
entrails of the great banners, the highest clades, their faces worked like glass into bird beaks and
god shapes, a smile playing on hard light lips and sweet smells sizzling against his safeguards;
strange censors passed before, their heads lost in lotus blossoms and scrambling large like robber
crabs.

He grit his teeth beneath the face, and felt the sweat trickle down, anger and fear that no
amount of interfacing, short of reformatting he would never do, could remove the visceral hatred
that lingered in the animal cortex.  So, he hated them, for their arrogance, wealth, idiocy, heredity, rank power the stunk and spewed financial statements and battle kills < < we both do! > > <please love…quiet!!>>

They rode past, and the higher clades like him stood and watched in silence, as the bannermen
rode past, down the street, and around a corner.

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This slim book of sociological and philosophical musing, a gentle and
intelligent polemic, attempts to answer why violence and the need to belong are
linked together.  He notes, for instance, that violence is often committed by those
whose identities feel threatened, citing the Okalahoma City bombings as an extreme
and monstrous example of this.  The analysis is not particularly deep, in the sense that
Maalouf offers few concrete examples, studies or research to support his points, and
thus relies on well-argued supposition to press his point; that is not to say that In the
Name of Identity is a shallow book. Quite the contrary.  Maalouf’s analysis, especially
of the Arab and Muslim world, is very intelligent, enlightened and useful; his place as
an Arab who lives in France, he claims, gives him a foot in both worlds, a two-faced
Janus vision of identity that he returns to throughout to lend credence to his
argument.

His thoughts about identity, in short, come down to a deconstruction of what
makes up an individual: he concludes there is no one fixed, monolithic identity, but a
series of what Maalouf calls ‘allegiances’: all the various vastitudes of history,
customs, religion, gender, class and the outlooks they entail. The individual,
therefore, is the sum of all their surroundings, society and acts of free will and quirks
of personality.  Out of that complexity we build ourselves and our built, and
sometimes, we come to hide those other facets in the name of one part of our
identity.  Maalouf does not agree with doing this, but can understand it, even if he
believes that it is morally wrong to force any human being to hold to one allegiance of
their identity, for instance, to Islam, at the expense of their other identities, whether
cultural, as an Arab, gendered or class, (Maalouf, however, stays away from class,
and indeed barely touches on economic conditions and their overwhelming effect on
people, including on all their other identities, a serious weakness it would seem, but
hold still…).

Often, Maalouf gets caught up in the liberal or postmodern understanding of
identity politics to such an extent that he rattles off bills of rights and what people
deserve to have acknowledged, about the needs of individuals to be more
understanding, open, and reflective:

“It is essential that we establish clearly and without ambiguity, and that we
watch over tirelessly, the right of every man to retain and to use freely his language,
which identifies him and with which he identifies himself.  I regard that freedom as
even more important than freedom of belief” (etc. etc.  The flaws to this kind of
preaching about essential freedoms is self-evident, I think)

This stance can be a commendable and ethical stance, but it can be a little
ridiculous, to read such warbling, which often disconnects itself from the material
conditions that influence human behaviour and seems to have little concrete to offer
(a biological/behaviorist critique of this book would be interesting, along the lines of a
John Gray) .  Maalouf does not dwell on the surface, nor does he delve that deep.  He
is smart enough to root the construction of an individual to the society that shaped
him and the many years, and deeper centuries, that plant their roots like cat parasites
in our fibres.   He is no fool in that regard.

And there is much to commend this book to someone who does not
necessarily share Maalouf’s soft but thoughtful liberalism and enthusiasm for a rights
based ideology of individual freedom.  His central and longest chapter on “Modernity
and the Other” contains much that goes against the dominant ideology in the media
and culture: that is, he argues, as an Arab himself, that Arabs, especially Arab
Muslims, are not intrinsically backwards, and do not necessarily have a problem
coping with issues of modernism, multiculturalism and tolerance (Maalouf, who
wrote a history of the Crusades from the Arab side, notes that over the long historical
term, neither religion has overall been more tolerant or enlightened then the other).

In his discussion of Islamist movements and Jihad, he is both disgusted by
their violence and fanaticism but is smart enough, again, as an Arab himself, to
recognise the cultural, material and personal humiliations of the greater civilization
that informs part of his identity.   He sees, as many other observers have, that Hamas
or the Iranian Revolution has far more to do with Third World revolutionary
movements then with the history of Islam, that poverty, land hunger, overpopulation,
ignorance and oppression are usually at the heart of why many young men are driven
to acts of violence on a social level, and that it is the failure of liberal humanism,
nationalism, socialism and communism, both suppressed by Western-backed regimes,
to mobilize the masses or provide solutions to poverty and weakness that has made
Islam acceptable again as the guide for action (indeed, he laments for a few pages that
Communism now appears to have been a much more palatable alternative to Islamic
fundamentalism).   What is more, and I have argued this relentlessly myself, when the
condition of ‘modernity’, however one wants to define it, is presented to people who
will probably never experience its benefits, who see exploitation, the destruction of
their livelihoods, their cultures, a way of life long solidified by tradition and the blood
of generations melting into air.  When telecommunications only allows more
oppression, when the freedom of modernity is denied, then how are they expected to
react?  To embrace feminism with open arms when they haven’t enough to eat?  To
belief in the free market when they have no jobs?  This, Maalouf attests, is all it takes
for desperate situations to seem palatable, and to see the bearers of Modernity,
wealthy, haughty, morally hypocritical, white and Western, as worthy of revenge.

(more…)

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Two news reports I recently stumbled upon while reading through the Fort William Times Journal.  Both of these articles fell in June 1913.

The first is about anti-socialist police in Breslau, then a part of German Silesia, now Wroclaw in Poland, and in 1913 the German Empire’s sixth or seventh largest city, a major industrial centre, especially for linen and cotton manufacturing, and capital of a region dominated by coal mining.  The police, as part of a government campaign against trade unionists, would actually attack and accost funerals for workers identified as members of the Socialist Party or at least members of a local trade union.   The red ribbons and flag were a dead give away.   As many funerals would become large processions, often rancorous, proud and politically charged, especially if the deceased was a member of the labour or socialist movement considered to have died unjustly, the police may have felt it posed a threat to ‘public order’; but clearly, the lengths they went to represent, according both to the article and a little sense, an attack upon organized labour far beyond ‘keeping the peace’.

The police, according to this Fort William Times Journal report, would charge and break up large funeral processions; smaller ones they would accost, either way with clubs a swinging.  Then, having disrupted the march, the police would tear off the ribbons from the casket, and even reach inside to pull the red ribbon pinned to a lapel.  In some cases, according again to this cable from Breslau, they would actually attack the physical burial and reach into the grave to remove any red tokens.  Seems a little over the top, doesn’t it?  It certainly might be a biased report, especially given the tensions between Germany and Britain at the time (the Fort William Times Journal would often carry headlines about German officialdom and its belligerency).  Certainly the Fort William Times Journal was not a pro-labour paper, given its attitude towards strikes and organising.  So, there must be some truth to this.  There is something almost ‘tribal’ or ‘ancient’ in it as well, assaulting and demeaning an opponents death ceremonies, but clearly we are dealing with something much more interesting and pertinent to today: a state using its armed guards to assault both mentally and materially any opposition to its sway, and to the rights of capital.

I found a more amusing story a week later in the paper.  It concerns a German official, unnamed but apparently well connected to the Chancellery, and speaking in the name of some branch of the German Government, calling President Wilson of the United States an “Agitator for Socialists.”  “Lecturing  Socialist, it has dubbed him” the article goes on to say.  “A bigger disturbor of peace than the Balkans War” according to the Germans.  For anyone who knows anything about Woodrow Wilson, this is ridiculous, and the Fort Williams Times Journal says as much, at least in its tone of bemused amazement.  For anyone who knows anything about Woodrow Wilson, his personal beliefs, his racism, attitude towards Progressivism and socialism, and the labour movement in general, and towards business and monopoly, then calling him a socialist would be like calling him an idolater: crude and insulting, the opposite of what he really was, and what forces in the United States he represented.  Hell, Teddy Roosevelt was more socialist than Woodrow Wilson, or was at least someone like Jack London could quote him approvingly.

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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,

  1. 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
  2. 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)
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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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Modern Times

“I would say that the fascist agenda was Utopian, and that it adopted the cult of science. That’s what leads Hitler to try and breed humans and apes to try to create an oversized warrior or to send expeditions to Tibet to find a pure, Aryan race. I mean, that’s not science. It’s the cult of science, and I think the New Atheists also make that leap from science into the cult of science, and that’s a problem. The Enlightenment was both a curse and a blessing, because it was really a reaction to the kind of superstition, intolerance, bigotry, anti-intellectualism of the clerics, of the church. But it also ended up with the Jacobins, [who said] well, if we can’t make certain segments of the society “civilized,” as we define civilization, then they must be eradicated, in the same way that you eradicate a virus.

I write in the book that not believing in God is not dangerous. Not believing in sin is very dangerous. I think both the Christian right and the New Atheists in essence don’t believe in their own sin, because they externalize evil. Evil is always something out there that can be eradicated. For the New Atheists, it’s the irrational religious hordes. I mean, Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world. Both Hitchens and Harris defend the use of torture. Of course, they’re great supporters of preemptive war, and I don’t think this is accidental that their political agendas coalesce completely with the Christian right.”

-Chris Hedges, author of I Don’t Believe in Atheists, interview on Salon.com (via the existence machine)

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“We think of modernity as an idea in the social sciences, when actually it is the last hiding place of ‘morality’.  Believers in modernity are convinced that – natural disasters aside – history is on the side of Enlightenment  values.  After all, that is what being modern means, is it not?

In fact, there are many ways of being modern, and many of failing to be.   It is not for nothing that a number of Expressionists were amongst Nazism’s earliest supporters, or that Oswald Mosley gave press interviews seated behind a black steel Futurist desk.  The Nazis were committed to a revolutionary transformation of European life.  For them, becoming modern meant racial conquest and genocide.  Any society that uses systematically uses science and technology to achieve its goals is modern.  Death camps are as modern as laser surgery.

A feature of the idea of modernity is that the future of mankind is always taken to be secular.  Nothing in history has ever supported this strange notion.  Secularization has occured in a few European countries…There is no sign of it in the United States.  Among Islamic countries, only Turkey possesses a well-entrenched secular state; in most others fundamentalism is on the rise…In China and Japan, where the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic idea of religion has never been accepted, secularism is practically meaningless.

Theories of modernization are cod-scientific projections of Enlightenment values.  They tell us nothing about the future.  But they do tell us about the present.  They show the lingering power of the Christian faith that history is a moral drama, a tale of progress or redemption, in which – despite everything we know of it – morality rules the world.”

– from John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

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“Whenever Muslim society has felt safe it has felt able to be open,  and the image Islam presents of itself at such times is nothing like the caricatures of today. I don’t claim that the older image is a more accurate reflection of the original spirit of Islam; merely that Islam, like any other religion or doctrine, always bears the marks of time and place.  Societies that are sure of themselves are mirrored by a religion that is confident, serene and open; uncertain societies are reflected in a religion that is hypersensitive, sanctimonious and aloof.  Dynamic societies have a dynamic Islam, one that is innovative and creative; sluggish societies have a sluggish Islam, one that resists change.

But let us leave for the moment such contrasts between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion – they are bound to be simplistic – and concentrate on something more precise.  When I refer to the influence of societies on religions I am thinking for example of the fact that when Muslims in the Third World attack the West, it is not only because they are Muslim and the West Christian, but because they are poor, downtrodden and derided,  while the West is rich and powerful. I say ‘also’ but I think ‘above all’.  For when I look at the militant Islamic movements of today I can easily detect, both in their words and methods, the Third World theories that became popular in the 1960’s; I certainly haven’t been able to find any obvious precedent in the history of Islam itself.  Such movements are a product of our times, with all its tensions, distortions, stratagems and despairs.

…What I am saying now is that while I can see quite clearly how such movements are the product of our troubled times, I cannot see how they could be the product of Islamic history.  Watching Ayatollah Khomeini, surrounded by his Revolutionary Guards, asking his people to rely on their own strength, denouncing the ‘Great Satan’ and vowing to remove all traces of Western culture, I couldn’t help thinking of the elderly Mao Tse-Tung of the Cultural Revolution surrounded by his Red Guards, denouncing the ‘great paper tiger’ and vowing to remove all traces of capitalist culture.  I wouldn’t say the two cases were identical, but I do see many similarities between them, whereas I don’t see anybody in the history of Islam who reminds me of Khomeini.  Nor, however carefully I look into the history of the Muslim world, do I find any mention of the setting up of an ‘Islamic republic; or the coming of an ‘Islamic revolution’.

–  from Amin Maalouf, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong

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