john gray, “straw dogs”

John Gray’s Straw Dogs is a curious book. This book of fragments holds a great deal of truth, without much rigour. Gray is to be considered among posthumans, although not according to his definition of the posthuman (see 6, 19, POSTHUMAN EVOLUTION, 185-7). Straw Dogs is his initiation into the ranks of the posthuman. In it he attacks and rejects all but a few of humanity’s most cherished ideas (morality, progress, salvation, historical meaning, human uniqueness in the natural world). Paradoxically, he is very close to the attitude of a New Age Obscurantist (his seeming reverence for something called the “Gaia Hypothesis”), or a Western Buddhist (although, in all fairness, he draws more from Taoism than Buddhism proper). If he were one of these things, he would not be posthuman. Thankfully, he remains a thoroughly alienated moralist and pessimist.

More than a few of these fragments are completely meaningless (in particular, see 3, 10, p. 105, A WEAKNESS FOR PRUDENCE and 4, 5, p. 128, HOMER’S VULTURES). However, we should take what we can from the rest of the book, which, here and there provides terse aphorisms that express an almost “theoretical anti-humanism.” This is certainly what is needed today. It could be said of Gray that he is the British Baudrillard, whom J.G. Ballard also admired. Baudrillard was quoting Lichtenberg and Chuang Tzu, as early as Seduction. Although their views are uncannily similar in some respects, I think Gray’s fragments are aiming for something they cannot transmit. Baudrillard realized the limit of the fragment, and did not intend for any of his to be used as a system. Whereas Gray, lucid though he is, does not always clearly express how he arrives at some of his conclusions (if he is trying to be systematic, which he suggests in the Foreword).

Gray attacks all forms of “humanism,” which “is the transformation of this Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal human emancipation. The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence (xiii).” Further on, he attacks the ideals of the humanist attitude: “Humanists insist that by using our knowledge we can control our environment and flourish as never before. In affirming this, they renew one of Christianity’s most dubious promises – that salvation is open to all (4).” He would like to believe that “humans are no different from other animals.” Here is where I disagree, but not on “humanist” grounds. Gray seems to refute himself: “What is distinctively human is not the capacity for language. It is the crystallization of language in writing (56).”

Humans are different from other animals, just as a cat is different from other animals (that are not also cats, but different from other cats insofar as they are separately spatial-temporal existing individual cats; unless it is Schrödinger’s cat!). More disturbingly than “the fact that writing is a strange, inhuman function, a reflection of the inhumanity of language itself (7, CM v),” is the notion that “it is the practice of evil, and hence, in a sense, the inhuman that is the distinctive mark of the human in the animal kingdom” (35, CM v). It is difficult to think of “evil” outside of any ethical / moral framework, but that human beings are capable of evil in no way depends on ethics or morality. Do we consider animals capable of committing acts of evil in the same way as humans? More often, perhaps always, it is animals that are prey to evil; yet not so often as other human beings provide sustenance for the hunger-like necessity of evil. The scales of justice are weighted so that thirst for evil is weighed against bulimic aversion for good; that we are on a starvation diet at an all you can eat buffet is quite obvious. Those who have the stomach for “good” are few; all most manage, if not radically or diabolically evil, is to live life in the moment: self-interested and perhaps self-destructive, nothing more. To us, good is like art or god: valuable but useless, comforting but beyond reach.

It is true that humans are different from animals. Evil and writing distinguish humans from other forms of life, but they do not mean that humans are exempt from the common destiny of other beings. In fact, most of human life is spent trying to eliminate this most certain of possibilities:

humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals. At the same time they never cease trying to escape from what they imagine themselves to be. Their religions are attempts to be rid of a freedom they have never possessed (120).

One author in particular that renders this situation is Houellebecq; both Elementary Particles and Possibility of an Island present a world consistent with Gray’s viewpoint, and what he calls “Technological Immortalists.” Scientific advances may someday eliminate the possibility of death, or make death another choice among alternatives (eternal youth, immortality, digitization of consciousness, cryogenics, etc.). Death may come to be the only way to spare us the life penalty:

Until a century or so ago, it was common for people to let themselves be carried off by pneumonia (“the old man’s friend”) or to step up their daily intake of opiates until they fell asleep for ever. The men and women who did this turned towards death, sometimes consciously, but more often in an instinctual movement no different from that in which a cat seeks a quiet place to see out its end.
As humanity has become more ‘moral’, it has put such deaths beyond reach (130).

Gray refers to progress as a myth, belief in progress a superstition, and says that

Today, only science supports the myth of progress … Science gives us a sense of progress that ethical and political life cannot … In fact, science does not yield any fixed picture of things, but by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview … science is a refuge from uncertainty, promising – and in some measure delivering – the miracle of freedom from thought; while churches have become sanctuaries for doubt … to think of science as the search for truth is to renew a mystical faith, the faith of Plato and Augustine, that truth rules the world, that truth is divine (19).

Technological advance brought about by scientific inquiry provides many blessings, it cannot be disputed. Beyond the blessings of technical innovation and the scientific method, there is only desolation.

The twentieth century illustrates that “mass murder is a side effect of progress in technology (92)” and that

[the West] could not admit that the largest mass murder in modern times – perhaps in all of human history – was occurring in a progressive regime. Between 1917 and 1959 over 60 million people were killed in the Soviet Union. These mass murders were not concealed: they were public policy … Progress and mass murder run in tandem. As the numbers killed by famine and plague have waned, so death by violence has increased. As science and technology have advanced, so has proficiency in killing. As the hope for a better world has grown, so has mass murder (95-6).

Besides killing, technology has greatly expanded the realm of economics by creating new modes of production (e.g. digitization, intellectual property, etc.) and manufacturing new goods (e.g. electronics, automobiles, etc). The new modes of production promise to make human labour meaningless, whereas new goods, in addition to their fabulous utility are also signs that point to a hidden economy of desire and transgression, in perfect collusion with the false-consciousness of morality:

If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it … Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology … Cars may have been invented to make moving about easier; but they soon came to be embodiments of forbidden desires … Which is more important today: the use of cars as means of transportation, or their use as expressions of our unconscious yearnings for personal freedom, sexual release and the final liberation of sudden death (14-5)?

This vision of progress, science, and technology and their interactive effects on the environment, human politics, and psychology is a truth few are willing to admit – that most live in denial of.

Gray does have guts. He is willing to say things that even if not true, force a different look of an issue we are complacent on. The existence of “genocide is as human as art or prayer (91).” Genocide could be an expression of human evil, or not; it could just as easily be a Malthusian mechanism to cull human populations. Whatever we decide “genocide” to be is irrelevant; that groups of humans have called for the extermination of another group and acted upon it with such mobilization, is something that knowledge or morality, science or technology, consciousness or freedom, have never prevented. In fact, the preceding pairs have never tried to prevent genocide: they are its ideological and material tools. On the question of genocide, Gray poses his own question, which, again, takes serious guts to ask:

It has long been known that those who perform great acts of kindness are rarely forgiven. The same is true of those suffer irreparable wrongs. When will the Jews be forgiven the Holocaust (97)?

Is this any less human than Gandhi’s reply to Europe’s Jews? Was this intended to shock? Or is it merely intended to illuminate the fact that, if anything, genocide is in our “human nature?” As long as there is human nature there will never be peace.

A key issue that Gray seems divided on is “freedom.” On the one hand he denounces it as an illusion, and on the other he says that hunter-gatherers had a greater degree of “freedom” than we have today (which seems to be part of his Gaia complex). It is very difficult to describe freedom; however, Gray seems to argue that hunter-gatherers had freedom from much of what limits us today (i.e. work), whereas we have freedom of choice (i.e. post-modern capitalism). He rightly calls this “the fetish of choice, the cult of choice.” From this we can also see the general trend of global capitalism, and its adoption by post-communist countries; they are, in a sense, becoming more “free.” A global market place offers them “the freedom to choose” like they have not experienced before:

The days when the economy was dominated by agriculture are long gone. Those of industry are nearly over. Economic life is no longer geared chiefly to production. To what then is it geared? To distraction … The economy is driven by an imperative of perpetual novelty, and its health has come to depend on the manufacture of transgression. The specter that haunts it is glut – not of physical goods only, but of experiences that have palled. New experiences become obsolete even more quickly than do physical commodities … new vices are prophylactics against the loss of desire (162-3).

We should note, along with the rise of vice, the corresponding rise of the permissive society. Another note to make is that with the rise of permission, there is a decline in rights and even more restrictions on freedom: “permissions masked as rights” (Zizek, FaTTaF, 59).

Another sharp but obvious observation, related to freedom, is that “we cannot believe as we please; our beliefs are traces left by our unchosen lives. A view of the world is not something that can be conjured up as and when we please (18).” This is precisely the problem with the cynical attitudes and ironic posturing that permeate social-political life: the cynic believes all views are “symbolic fiction” except the one he holds; the ironist holds that all views, inclusive of his own, are “symbolic fiction” (see Zizek, Indivisible Remainder). To the cynic, the good is what he considers to be good and nothing else; to the ironist, the good is what he can be convinced of and nothing else. Even these elevated strategies of passivity are not enough to free them from the tediousness of life among homo rapiens, because

… we have identified the good life with the chosen life … being born a mortal, in a given place and time, strong or weak, swift of slow, brave or cowardly, beautiful or ugly, suffering tragedy or being spared it – these features of our lives are given to us, they cannot be chosen … We are forced to live as if we were free.
The cult of choice reflects the fact that we must improvise our lives. That we cannot do otherwise is a mark of unfreedom. Choice has become a fetish; but the mark of a fetish is that it is unchosen (109-10).

As far as this goes, it is Baudrillard who takes it one step farther:

Our idea is that pleasure – and freedom – are positive values and that they are to be preferred, even if they are inflicted on you …
Giving pleasure forcibly is worse than taking it forcibly. Forcing someone to be free is worse than enslaving them. Naturally this is not grasped in the simplistic vision of human rights (CM v, 41).

What we are seeing today is the rise of global capital committing atrocities in the name of choice and freedom when we know that the most important, the most intimate details of our lives are not chosen (for instance, we cannot choose to fall in love, can we?), when all our supposed freedom manifests itself in the constant imperative “To Work!” and “To Enjoy!” Lacan can help us understand the situation with his axiom on love: “love is giving what you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it”. Freedom is to be inflicted upon those who do not want it. What is interesting today is that the hunter-gatherer notion of freedom from work is being realized, even as “human rights freedoms” are diminished (despite the numerous crusaders):

New technologies are rapidly displacing human labour. The ‘underclass’ of the permanently unemployed is partly the result of poor education and misguided economic policies. Yet it is time that increasing numbers are becoming economically redundant. It is no longer unthinkable that within a few generations the majority of the population will have little or no role in the production process (159).

The boredom that is already characteristic of modern life will only be intensified. For now, under the hybrid regime of work-leisure, our “remedy for senseless work is a therapeutic regime of senseless violence – carefully choreographed street fights, muggings, burglaries, rapes and other, even more deviant recreations” (165, quoted from Ballard). But what about after work has been abolished, “How will satiety and idleness be staved off when designer sex, drugs and violence no longer sell?” (166). Gray’s answer to this is already immanent: “At that point, we may be sure, morality will come back into fashion. We may not be far from a time when ‘morality’ is marketed as a new brand of transgression” (166).

Straw Dogs is a book to be read with caution. There is no central argument, so it is easy to get swept up and convinced by these fragments’ aphoristic power. The best thing Gray offers us in terms of a “solution” is that we attempt to

set ourselves a different aim: to discover which illusions we can give up, and which we will never shake off. We will still be seekers after truth, more so than in the past; but we will renounce the hope of a life without illusion. Henceforth our aim will be to identify our invincible illusions. Which untruths might we be rid of, and which can we not do without? – that is the question, that is the experiment (83).

Here we should fully embrace the Zizekean movement of not only realizing the common place truth that “reality is an illusion,” but fully try to articulate the much more demanding truth of the reality in illusion.

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