Tuesday, June 26, 2007

John Gray, Terry Eagleton and Bakhtin

The Times has a nice profile of British author and political thinker John Gray. I have read two of his books, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals and Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions. As the titles suggest both books are full of over-the-top misanthropy and apocalyptic pronouncements. I can't summarise better than Terry Eagleton:

Not that nihilism is a term he would endorse. His book is so remorselessly, monotonously negative that even nihilism implies too much hope. Nihilism for Gray suggests the world needs to be redeemed from meaninglessness, a claim he regards as meaningless. Instead, we must just accept that progress is a myth, freedom a fantasy, selfhood a delusion, morality a kind of sickness, justice a mere matter of custom and illusion our natural condition. Technology cannot be controlled, and human beings are entirely helpless. Political tyrannies will be the norm for the future, if we have any future at all. It isn't the best motivation for getting out of bed.

It is so relentlessly negative that it is funny. My favourite part of the book was where he claims that the faculty of language, unique to the humans (he doubts this too), is responsible for wars and destruction. He says something like, "the good, the true, the beautiful: wars and genocides have happened in the service of these abstractions." And what makes human beings vulnerable to abstractions? Language, of course! I think he name checks a few philosophers but that's his basic idea. He is also very impatient with free will and self-consciousness and basically every tenet of humanism. He calls himself "post-humanist." On the whole a great introduction to misanthropic thought...

Also in the latest london review of books there is a fantastic introduction to the life and thought of Russian literary critic and thinker Mikhail Bakhtin by Eagleton:
Why this curious parallelism between the age of Stalinist terror and the era of the iPod? The answer is fairly obvious. Just as Bakhtin’s work is among other things a coded critique of Soviet autocracy, so postmodernism springs in large part from the rout of modern Marxism. In the work of Baudrillard, Lyotard and others, it began as an alternative creed for disenchanted leftists. Its obsession with discourse makes sense in an age short on political action. Instead of setting fire to campuses, American students now cleanse their speech of incorrectness. If Marxism had been shamefully coy about sexuality, postmodernism makes a fetish of it. The warm, desiring, palpable body is a living rebuke to all those bloodless abstractions about the Asiatic mode of production. Instead of grand narratives that lead to the gulag, we have a plurality of mini-narratives. Since doctrinal absolutes dismember bodies, relativism is the order of the day. If castrating homosexuals is part of your culture, it would be ethnocentric of me to object. Revolution is no longer on the agenda, but sporadic subversions may stand in for it. Class politics yields to identity politics. The system cannot be overthrown, but at least it can be deconstructed. And since there is no political hope in the heartlands of capitalism, where the proletariat has upped sticks without leaving a forwarding address, the postmodern gaze turns mesmerically to the Other, whatever passport (woman, gay, ethnic minority) it happens to be travelling on.

Here is another fantastic introductory essay on the same subject that I read a while back. The first time I read about him in detail, beyond his usual name checks regarding Dostoevsky's "polyphony" and "dialogism." (Link available only to subscribers, also collected in the essay collection Views from the Other Shore: Essays on Herzen, Chekhov and Bakhtin by Aileen Kelly)


Cheshire Cat said...

If one is to believe Eagleton, "thinker" is something of an exaggeration.

Alok said...

haha, yes you can say that. Let's just say he doesnt have many original ideas, he just uses the ideas of other pessimist thinkers to comment on issues of our time. (I in fact don't agree with him on most of his conclusions either.)

Some positive comments here.