Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 20

We now arrive at chapter 6, the shortest, of the wonderfully provocative little book – Straw Dogs - by the well-known philosopher John Gray.  It is entitled “As it is” and only contains five sections in the span of six pages.

Section 1: The Consolations of Action:

In a book which champions an erudite and questioning pessimism, this title is singularly positive.  Having read these two pages two quotations from Shakespeare rattle around my mind:


All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(from As You Like It 2/7)


To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act 5, Sc. 5, 19-28.

These two quotations sum up for me the tone and the tenor of Gray's thoughts in this section.  People of action, our philosopher friend argues, engage in it because the world is a stage on which to enact their dreams.  Here are Gray’s words for your pondering:

Over the past few hundred years, at least in Europe, religion has waned, but we have not become less obsessed with imprinting a human meaning on things.  A thin secular idealism has become the dominant attitude to life.  The world has come to be seen as something to be remade in our own image.  The idea that life is not action but contemplation has almost disappeared.  (Op. cit., 193)

The above are some words from a mere two pages which demand to be re-read several times for their profundity.  However, the central theme is the human animal’s self-delusions and and delusions of grandeur; it’s constant seeking of meaning and truth – delusions in themselves; it’s construction and re-construction under new masks of ancient desires for eternity.  Humanisms and secularisms of all varieties, our man argues, are mere masks for the old religious quests for meaning outside or indeed inside us.  Perhaps, T.S. Eliot was right after all – we are Hollow Men indeed, bereft of meaning, or mere Straw Dogs as the Old Sage or Lao Tsu argues.  Then, how about this for a depressingly pessimistic message from our philosopher friend?  I find a Shakespearean sensibility in them:

The good life is not found in the dreams of progress, but in coping with tragic contingencies.  We have been reared on religions and philosophies that deny the experience of tragedy.  Can we imagine a life that is not founded on the consolations of action?  Or are we too lax and coarse even to dream of living without them?  (ibid., 194)

Section 2: Sisyphus’s Progress:

This section is almost a hymn to idleness, and indeed why not?  In Western societies, we are all slaves to work and to the work ethic which is all at the behest of our illusions and delusions of grandeur.  Gray reminds us that it was the Protestant Christians who put such an emphasis on work and the work ethic while others like the ancient Greeks sought salvation in philosophy, the Indians in Meditation and the Chinese in poetry and nature.  Then he reminds us that the pygmies of the African rainforests work only to meet the needs of the day, and spend most of their lives idling.  However, most religions and certainly modern society, built on the concept of progress despise and condemn idleness.  Our author reminds us that the moral of the Myth of Sisyphus is that continual work is indeed slavery and enslavement and quotes Robert Graves to back him up.  I recall here with a certain pessimistic and dark pleasure our reading Camus’ rendering of the same story in a more modern guise from my college days in the late seventies of the last century.

Section 3: Playing with Fate:

In an interesting insight into playing, Gray informs us that “the point of playing is that play has no point.” (Ibid., 196)  Our philosopher is correct, I feel, when he says that we have forgotten how to play or how to be playful towards life.  Instead we are engaged in a purposeful existence, geared towards work and more work, all in the name of a delusion called progress – my words here as I assimilate Gray’s thoughts.  There is a lot of meat for thought here!

Section 4: Turning Back:

I particularly love the opening lines of this section, which again like the last chapter – indeed the whole book – demands re-reading many times for its sheer provocation of thought and ideas aplenty!  Let me quote these wonderfully provocative words:

Searching for meaning in life may be useful therapy, but it has nothing to do with the life of the spirit.  Spiritual life is not a search for meaning but a release from it. (Ibid., 197)

Again to finish this section I am drawn to quote our philosopher again:

In modern times, the immortal longings of the mystics are expressed in a cult of incessant activity.  Infinite progress… infinite tedium.  What could be more dreary than the perfection of mankind?  The idea of progress is only the longing for immortality given a techno-futurist twist.  (Ibid., 198)

Section 5: Simply to See:

Gray finishes his book with three sentences, the theme of which is the title of this section.  Buy the book, read them and ponder, ponder, ponder!

Above, yet another photograph I took at Howth Dart Station. Welcome to modernity.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 19

Section 13: The Lesson of Japan:

Japan shut itself off from the influence of the world between the years 1543 and 1879 by giving up the gun and reverting to the sword.  From having more guns than any other country it succeeded in eliminating them almost entirely.  The Samurai, a group among the ruling class, benefited by reverting to the sword.  But, when Commodore Perry arrived with his ships in 1853, the rulers of Japan realised that they had to revert to the gun again if they were to survive.  It then began to build up one of the world’s biggest navies.  This navy went on to destroy the Russian Imperial Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima – the first time a modern European power was defeated in war by an Asian people.  The lesson of Japan is simple: “Any country that renounces technology makes itself a prey of others that do not.” (Op.cit., 178)

Section 14: Russia in the Vanguard:

Russia had always aped the West, so argues Gray.  For them there is one simple equation: being modern = being like the West.  With respect to Russia, our author writes tongue-in-cheek, I believe.  However, I hasten to add that my understanding of politics and economics is singularly lacking, so I may be somewhat misrepresenting our author.  What is the tone of the following piece?  Is it sarcastic, ironic, tongue-in-cheek or serious?:

Every attempt to modernise Russia on a Western model has failed.  This does not mean that Russia is not modern.  Quite to the contrary, it has pioneered what may prove to be the most advanced form of capitalism.  A hypermodern economy has arisen from the ashes of the Soviet State – a mafia-based anarcho-capitalism that is expanding throughout the West… drugs, pornography, prostitution cyber-fraud and the like – are the true growth sectors in the most advanced economies.  Russian anarcho-capitalism shows many signs of surpassing Western capitalism in this new phase of development.  (Ibid., 179)

Section 15: “Western Values”

Gray praises Japan and China, both of which, while embracing a western-style economy, have not embraced western values. He commends the Japanese by pointing to the fact that on a per capita basis Japan has a tenth of the prison population that the US has.  He gives no statistics for China.  He also suggests that the Russians, who embraced western values more heartily were eventually scorned by the west and were “treated worst than the Axis powers at the end of the Second World War.” (Ibid., 179)

Section 16: Future War:

Gray’s message in this section is to forget the ideological conflicts of the twentieth century and read Malthus once again.  Why?  Quite simply with the unbridled growth of the population of the human animal, wars will be fought over dwindling natural resources. On Thomas Robert Malthus the WIKI is singularly good:

The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus FRS (13 February 1766 – 23 December 1834) was an English scholar who did influential work in political economy and demography.  Malthus came to prominence for drawing attention to the potential dangers of population growth: "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man".  As an Anglican clergyman, Malthus saw this situation as divinely imposed to teach virtuous behaviour: he regarded optimistic ideas of social reform as doomed to failure. He thus presented to the reader a dystopian, negative, view of the world, in contrast to the utopias of writers such as Rousseau and William Godwin. A disaster occurring as a consequence of population growth outstripping resources is known as a Malthusian catastrophe. (See this link: Malthus)

It is interesting that Gray quotes E.O. Wilson, the American biologist and sociobiologist as stating that the genocidal war between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda was partly a struggle for water.  He quotes Wilson as stating:

The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi set out to solve the population problem in the most direct way. (Quoted ibid., 181)

There is also a war of survival going on between the West and Central Asia “with the great powers vying for control of oil as they did in the nineteenth century.  In the Persian Gulf, poor and rapidly growing populations need high and rising oil prices to survive.  At the same time, rich countries need stable or falling oil prices if they are to continue to prosper.  The result is a classical Malthusian conflict.” (Ibid., 181)

Section 17: War as Play:

Here I am struck by the profundity and deep sense that Freud made with most of his much criticised theories.  he was probably criticised harshly because he cut through to the very kernel of the human animal.  If anything, the first great psychiatrist saw into the very heart of things.  I am reminded of his stating that there were two very fundamental instincts in the human animal, viz., the life instinct and the death instinct.  Anyone acquainted with war, or indeed with violence in any of its multitude of forms, will readily agree with the learned doctor.   I am surprised that Gray does not quote Freud more often.  However, he does quote a wonderful scene from Bertrand Russell’s writings.  It was during the Great War and Russell had been in an English railway station: “It was crowded with soldiers, almost all of them drunk, half of them accompanied by drunken prostitutes, the other half by wives or sweethearts, all despairing, all reckless, all mad.” (Quoted ibid., 182)  Such experiences led this great philosopher to revise his more naive view of human nature.  He went on elsewhere to say: “I had supposed that most people liked money better than anything else, but I discovered that they liked destruction even better.” (Quoted ibid., 182)  Gray calls this bloody enchantment with war “the play of war.”

Section 18: Yet Another Utopia:

I notice that Gray uses his profoundly sarcastic black humour to speak of humanity as “homo rapiens.”  Yes, that is indeed “rapiens” not “sapiens.”  In fact, this is the second time he has used this phrase in the book.  When I first came upon it I thought it was a typological error.  Now I realise it is in fact an intended and sarcastic one:

So longer as population grows, progress will consist in labouring to keep up with it.  There is only one way that humanity can limit its labours, and that is by limiting its numbers.  (Ibid., 184)

Section 19: Posthuman Evolution:

Once again Gray almost outdoes himself with his gripping titles.  The central message here is that we humans could possibly, and probably according to our author, and the authors he quotes, be replaced by the artefacts and technologies we ourselves have created.

Section 20: The Soul in the Machine:

Here our author posits the development of “conscious machines.” (Ibid., 187)  He also argues that these machines will not alone become conscious, but that they inevitably will become spiritual.  They will ne able to think and to feel (having developed emotions) and will be full of the errors and illusions that go with self-awareness.  (See ibid., 187)   This section is particularly if delightfully and profoundly black and pessimistic – if I am not totally wrong to use the world “delightfully” here.  I suppose I use this word because at least our man Gray is provocative and playfully courageous in his thought.  I loved this passage especially in which he alludes to that old cogitator, Descartes:

Descartes described animals as machines.  The great cogitator would have been nearer the truth if he had described himself as a machine.  Consciousness may be the human attribute that machines can most easily reproduce.  It may be in their capacity for consciousness that humans and the machines that are now devising are most alike.  (Ibid., 188)

The so called inanimate machines may/will become animate, that is, they may/will develop souls.  This will be a new “animism” as it were.

Above a picture of an advertisement I took at Howth Dart Station - it illustrates our over-riding concern with technology.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 18

Section 8: Mesmerism and the New Economy

In this great section Gray is at his perceptive best. One can only wholeheartedly agree with him that the world is ruled by suggestion. Emotions can be whipped up among people at an alarmingly quick speed. Information is shot about the world almost instantaneously now and consequently emotions of anger, pain, hatred, success, failure, pride, joy and happiness can be created there and then. As Gray so succinctly puts it: “The Internet confirms what has long been known – the world is ruled by the power of suggestion.

These days, now that the mythic Celtic Tiger has come to be little more than a vanished dream, we are well aware that the Irish banking system is gaining a dreadfully poor reputation on the international front, because the perception is that nothing has changed in the top echelons of that profession in this country. Our financial reputation is being ruined on an almost daily basis by unthinking and immoral bankers. Irish readers, especially, do not need to be reminded of the truth of Gray’s perspicacious views (penned in 2002) that:

Financial markets are moved by contagion and hysteria. New communications technologies magnify suggestibility. Mesmer and Charcot are better guides to the new economy than Hayek or Keynes. (Op. cit., 171)

I might point out here that the French doctor Charcot was the founder of modern psychiatry and working on a foundation laid down by the famous, or infamous, Mesmer, he popularised the process of hypnosis.

Section 9: A Theory of Consciousness:

This paragraph comprises two sentences only, the import of which is that consciousness is a side-effect of language.

Section 10: Memories in Stones:

In short, the tenor of this piece is that cities represent humankind’s yearning for a settled existence. The great stone buildings and the streets and boulevards themselves outlive humankind who are mere fleeting shadows among those stones.

Section 11: The Myth of Modernisation:

Modernisation wears many masks indeed. All of the following count as being Modern (where technology is in the driving seat): (i) Positivists of the nineteenth-century, (ii) for Marx and the Webbs it meant an economy without private property, (iii) Nazi modernism meant racism and genocide, (iv) the future lies in secularism alone. Once again, Gray succinctly argues:

Theories of modernisation are cod-scientific projections of Enlightenment values. (Ibid., 174)

Section 12: Al Qaeda:

An entire view of the world was changed on 9/11, 2001 when the Twin Towers were destroyed by Al Qaeda. In one (or two) fell swoops the capitalist myth of interminable progress was well and truly vanquished. The modern western world would never be the same again. “The terrorists were foot soldiers in a new war of religion.” (Ibid., 175) Before 9/11 most people thought that free trade had made war obsolete. Now that myth itself was debunked.

Above a picture I took in March 2008 of two wonderful horses - our animal relatives!

The Hubris of Humankind 17

Section 6: A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun:

People cannot get enough.  In fact, we live in a world where most people are numbed to boredom fulfilling their desires.  We have too many choices and can do what we wish at a whim.  This is Gray’s message in this section – at least, my assimilation of it at any rate.  Once again his prose is beautifully seductive and enchanting.  Oh my God, look at all those holiday makers wishing to have a balcony facing the sun!

Once the human economy was dominated by agriculture.  Now it is dominated by industry, a dominance, Gray argues, that is coming to an end.  (Op.cit., 162) Let me return momentarily to a direct quote:

Contemporary capitalism is prodigiously productive, but the imperative that drives it is not productivity.  It is to keep boredom at bay.  (Ibid., 162-163)

I believe the good philosopher is correct.  Boredom is the modern malaise, at least in the developed world.  Those human animals, to use Gray’s language, in the developing countries are too busy trying to survive to be ever bored.  Boredom is a disease too many of my pupils have at school.  They become all too easily bored.  Why?  Quite simply as my mother used to say when she was compos mentis: “Children today have too much.”  Well, those children are now adults with children of their own, and parents with a low boredom threshold have reared even more bored offspring.  The following is sadly all too true:

The economy is driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty, and its health, and its health has come to depend on the manufacture of transgression.  The spectre that haunts it is a glut – not of physical goods only, but of experiences that have palled.  New experiences become obsolete even more quickly than do physical commodities.  (Ibid., 163)

While everywhere we look we find multiple aids to pleasure in all its dimensions, they are fact becoming "antidotes to boredom.” (Ibid., 163)  It’s so hard to find fault with Gray here if we really accept what Western culture has become.  Further down this section we learn that Gray’s title for this section is from a novel called Cocaine Nights (1996) by J.G. Ballard (1930 – )

Section 7: Twentieth-Century Anti-Capitalists, the Phalanstery and the Medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit

What a cumbersome title for any sectional heading.  It sounds like some medieval horror novel.  Anyway, let’s get to the point.  This subtitle is all about Utopian and Millennial or Millenarian dreams.  Gray introduces us to the dreamers, and sure aren’t we all dreamers.  Firstly, he introduces us to the Situationists who were a small exclusive sect who were active, he informs us, about a generation ago.  They inspired anti-capitalist riots in many of the capitals of Europe.  However, like all sects, they were not offering anything new, but rather presented old wine in new wineskins, to repeat a cliché.  Gray goes on to inform us that they were inspired by a mélange of influences, the most unusual and powerful of which was that of a late medieval sodality of mystical anarchists called The Brethren of the Free Spirit.  They were also influenced by Marxist teaching, Anarchism, nineteenth-century revolutionary theories and twentieth-century vanguardist art.  What a stew of ideas indeed!  Let us read Gray’s own words here:

The Situationists’ dream was the same as that of this millenarian cult – a society in which all things were held in common and no one was forced to work.  In the early 60s, they enlivened student protests in Strasburg with quotes from the medieval revolutionaries.  During the events of 1968, they scrawled similar graffiti on the walls of Paris.  Among the most memorable of these was Never Work! (Ibid., 166-167)

Gray, like other experts he quotes, sees modern revolutionary movements as heirs to the mystical anarchist cults of the Middle Ages.  Again he remind us that the goals of these organisations came not from science but from “the eschatological fantasies of religion.” (Ibid., 167)  In a rather wonderful reflection on Marxist socialism Gray opines:

Marx scorned utopianism as unscientific.  But if “scientific socialism” resembles any science, it is alchemy.  Along with other Enlightenment thinkers, Marx believed that technology could transmute the base metal of human nature into gold… animated by the faith that humans are destined to master the Earth, he insisted that freedom from labour could be achieved without any restraint on their desires.  This was only the Brethren of the Free Spirit’s apocalyptic fantasy returning as an Enlightenment Utopia.  (Ibid., 167-168)

Again, I am indebted to Gray for introducing yet another unknown figure to me, namely Charles Francois Fourier, the early-nineteenth-century utopian.  It was this man of vision who proposed that in future human beings should live in monastery-like institutions called phalansteres, in which free love is practised and no one is compelled to work.  Marx somehow thought, along with Fourier and other dreamers that the state would wither away.  And then Gray concludes this illuminating section:

The Situationists and the Brethren of the Free Spirit are separated by centuries, but their view of human possibilities is the same.  Humans are gods stranded in a world of darkness…  This mystical vision is the Situationists’ true inspiration, and that of anyone who has ever dreamt of a world in which humans can live without restraint.  (Ibid., 170)

We do so much need to laugh at ourselves. This is a picture of an add for Des Bishop's comedy show I took at Howth Railway station recently, March 2008 in fact.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sometimes it's so Good to be Irish!

First of all, congratulations to the wonderful Dubliner, Bernard Dunne, on becoming the WBA World Champion.  We were all literally riveted to our television sets on Saturday night/Sunday morning to watch our man beat Ricardo Cordoba convincingly.  Dunne completed a remarkable weekend for Irish sport to claim the WBA World super bantamweight title after dethroning Panamanian southpaw Ricardo Cordoba at the O2 in Dublin in the early hours of Sunday morning. The Dubliner floored the defending champion three times and the fight was stopped in the 11th round to complete a sensational night for Irish boxing.   Bernard Dunne’s courage, stamina and conviction are second to none.  Added to that, he comes across as a very natural and genuine guy!  Well done Bernard, we’re all proud of you.  The last photo above is one I took from a billboard in Santry today while the others are all in the public domain.

Secondly, congratulations to the brilliant Ireland Rugby team who successfully achieved The Grand Slam and the Triple Crown all in one fell swoop.  I looked at the Rugby on RTE 2 and turned off the sound so that I could listen to Michael Corcoran’s wonderful commentary from Radio 1.  How could anyone not get excited when listening to Corcoran?  His excitement is infectious.  Well done to all the Ireland Rugby players and commiserations to our fellow Celts the Welsh on losing.  See link here to TV 3’s sport page for edited highlights of their welcome home at The Mansion House and other various snippets of their victory:  TV3 .


Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 16

Chapter 5 of John Gray’s book Straw Dogs is entitled Non-Progress.  Once again, he divides his chapter, this time into 20 subsections.

Section 1:  De Quincey’s Toothache

Another unusual subtitle that refers to De Quincey’s contention that a quarter of human misery is toothache.  Be that as it may, pain does make up a large enough proportion of life.  Then he repeats once again like a chorus his sincere belief that, although progress is a fact of life, faith in that same progress is a superstition.  I am also inclined to believe him when he says that while there is progress in knowledge, there is none in ethics. (See op.cit., 155)

The sad fact of history is that many civilisations have perished and all the artifacts that sprang from them.  On the other hand the knowledge is ever growing and expanding, and so it gives the impression of indefinite progress.  Let me quote Gray’s words once again:

History is not progress or decline, but recurring gain and loss.  The advance of knowledge deludes us into thinking we are different from other animals, but our history shows us that we are not.  (Ibid., 155)

Section 2:  The Wheel:

This section is a straightforward potted history of early man from the hunter-gatherer to the early farmer.  And then a few sentences from where Gray gets his title for this section:

History is a treadmill turned by rising human numbers.  Today GM crops are being marketed as the only means of avoiding mass starvation… Genetic crop modification is another turn in a wheel that has been in motion since the passing of hunter-gathering.  (Ibid., 159)

Section 3:  An Irony of History:

Here Gray reminds us of a well-aired fact that new technologies are rapidly displacing human labour.  Interestingly enough he reminds us that the Industrial Revolution not alone forced a shift in population from rural areas into cities, but it also enabled a massive growth in population, especially with the growth of an underclass of workers.  And now irony of ironies:

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new phase of the Industrial Revolution is under way that promises to make much of that population superfluous.  (Ibid.,159)

In the developed world, with the decline in home-based manufacturing, where old industries have been transported to the developing world, human beings are working to amuse other human beings.  Also we consequently get the growth of such phenomena as: psychotherapy and counselling, designer religions, a vast and various entertainment industry, and then, the old reliables, sex, drugs and rock and roll!

Section 4:  The Discreet Poverty of the Former Middle Classes:

I find it hard to comprehend this section, and fully realise that the fault is my own, as I simply do not understand either economics or politics.  I cannot see at all how the following can be true:

Bourgeois life was based on the institution of the career – a lifelong pathway through working life.  Today professions and occupations are disappearing.  Soon they will be bas remote and archaic as the ranks and estates of medieval times…  The middle class is a luxury capitalism can no longer afford.  (Ibid., 161)

Section 5:  The End of Equality:

Equality became fashionable after the Second World War:

The welfare state was a by-product  of the Second World War.  The National Health Service began in the Blitz, full employment in conscription.  Post-war egalitarianism was an after-effect of mass mobilisation in war.  (ibid.,  161)

Gray argues that in very affluent societies as we have today that the masses of people are superfluous – even as cannon fodder.  “Wars are no longer fought by conscript armies but by computers… With this mutation of war, the pressure to maintain social cohesion is relaxed.  The wealthy can pass their lives without any contact with the rest of society.  So long as the do not pose a threat to the rich, the poor can be left to their own devices.” (Ibid., 162)  Equality has given way to an oligarchy of the rich.

Above a picture of cloud formation over Donabate Strand which I took in March 2008.