Monday, January 10, 2011

the panic, the vomit!

Oh, I am in a state today. Fully 36 hours since consuming childish amounts of alcohol and I appear to still be hungover. My dear wife is even worse off.

Leaves me feeling low, this nuclear holocaust of headache and nausea and contrition. And so I'm thinking about John Gray today. John Gray was the first person I ever heard suggest that there is no such thing as progress, at least in the political and ethical sense of the word. I found that a complete and utter headfuck when I heard it, right up there with when you first seriously ask yourself whether there's a god or not. As a species we are obsessed with the potential of things and people, from footballers to musicians to actors, but we rarely ever stop and say "This is as good as it gets and I think it's just fine." We'd see that as defeatist, as letting ourselves down.

As Gray puts it:

"The idea of progress is detrimental to the life of the spirit, because it encourages us to view our lives, not under the aspect of eternity, but as moments in a universal process of betterment. We do not, therefore, accept our lives for what they are, but instead consider them always for what they might someday become."

and, also:

"The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge — not even in the long run."

Most discomforting at first, that kind of rhetoric, but oddly uplifting once you get used to it. I am a riot to be around while dwelling on these things. I have also been learning about Black Swan Theory and reading this remarkably good piece about Internet stupidity. If you only click on one link in this post make it that one.

But I leave you with some even wiser words, as spaketh by the prophet Andrew:

"€5 cocktails do not make for a cheap night out when you consume eighteen of them between the two of you."

11 comment(s):

White Rabbit said...

I disagree there Sir. 5 yoyo cocktails in Dublin, sounds like a feckin BARGIN. You'd be a fool not to have 18 between the two of you

Jo said...

Not planning to read any right now, but will come back.

It's the glasses. The just tip the sweet nectar so easily down one's gullet. Danger, danger.

I've developed an appreciation for Cosmos a decade after everyone else did. SO TASTY! But I feel horrible the next day even after one or two...

Andrew said...

WR - Honestly, it was a spectacularly stupid thing to do. They don't even measure the spirits in this place, so fuck knows what kinda quantities of spirits were in my Long island iced tea. I had a deadly night, but two full days of pain and depression for both of us doesn't seem worth it. Emordino and his lady seemed to bear up a little better than us, hardy young booze vikings that they are.

Jo - Yes, I also had Cosmos.

Or, at least, I recall buying some and slopping them down my arm as I staggered back to my table, though I've no recollection of actually consuming them.

emordino said...

Feh, John Gray. It's years since I read Straw Dogs, and all I remember is a bunch of contrarian posturing and silly straw-man arguments.

I mean, for instance, this whole business of "progress". A nebulous concept like that, you need to nail down some pretty precise definitions before you start deconstructing it. And whose definitions does he use? Why, John Gray's, of course.

I'll give him this: he's the world's leading authority on what John Gray thinks.

(tl;dr: nebulous)

Andrew said...

"he's the world's leading authority on what John Gray thinks."

Which is mostly what I'm looking for in a philosopher, so many of them use up all of my internet age attention span referring to what every other motherfucker thought, then postulating what other, unnamed philosophers might think, that i'm left thoroughly clueless as to their own ideas. Extended cap-doffing, really.

'Progress' would be a nebulous concept whether defined by a sole philosopher or a think tank comprising half of humanity, no? I don't agree with everything Gray says, but there's no doubt in my mind that a huge amount of people, however unconsciously, view the world as being capanle of a untopian end, and I don't buy that. His book 'Black Mass' is particularly clear in the way it traces many of the major political movements and decisions of the past couple of centuries back to tendencies in millenarian religions.

(Too long, don't care.)

Andrew said...

Every fucking time I leave a considered comment of any kind anywhere on the internet I undermine it with typos.

'capable' and 'utopian', obviously.

Kitty Catastrophe said...

€5 cocktails and they don't measure the spirits? Where might one find this particular den of iniquity? Purely out of curiosity, of course.

emordino said...

Well, my point with the "what John Gray thinks" crack is that he's an echo chamber, he argues only with himself. You're precisely right that "progress" would be defined a million ways depending on who you ask, and that's why you can't just claim to debunk the entire concept. I mean, any abstract concept.

So that kind of thing, or something like "trac[ing] many of the major political movements and decisions of the past couple of centuries back to tendencies in millenarian religions"... it's food for thought, certainly, it's interesting and fun as an intellectual exercise, but it's also tremendously reductive. I can't even pretend to know what's really going on in my head, much less in anyone else's.

(Relating this to the second passage you quoted in your post: of course "ethics and politics" haven't advanced in step with objective knowledge, because "ethics and politics" don't exist as things that can be acted on by outside forces. They're inelegant abstractions of some small part of the subjective experience of human consciousness, which is to say *head asplode*. However, we do have a tendency to actualise such vague notions in laws and other social structures, and in terms of those, we as a species treat each other vastly better than we did 500 or 100 or 50 or 10 years ago.)

emordino said...

And if I might big up one of my own favourite thinkers: Norbert Elias, the pioneer of process sociology, which exhibits a "Concern for process, not state... an attempt to correct for an in-built language prejudice which tilts theory to reduce processes into static elements, separating, for example, human actors from their actions."

The clearest example I can think of is the word "wind", which is a noun, and implies that "wind" is something that can be said to exist in a given place at a given time... whereas in fact "wind" is not a thing, it's a process, whereby warm, low-pressure air rises and colder air rushes in... there's no zero point to the process, nowhere it originated from, and no end point, no conclusion it's moving towards. And, importantly, there's no meaningful objective sense in which you can say that the process ever gets "better" or "worse".

Isn't this fun?

Rosie said...

Colm scares me a little sometimes.

Andrew said...

He only scares me when he's wearing spats, Rosie.

Kitty Cat - It's called Copan and it's next to Boots in Rathmines. Apparently it's been featured on Xposé, and it shows. The clientele is a gropey, posey mix of Café En seine and Copper's. Not recommended.

Colm - I dunno, the stuff I've seen of Gray's sees him engaging with all kinds of thinkers, and not just fusty Enlightenment (bollocks term) heads, but also more recent people like Francis Fukuyama, who for some reason suggested that the end of the Cold War meant we were at 'the end of history'.

As for being reductive by analysing abstract concepts... well, yeah, perhaps. But sometimes I find that following your line of reasoning means that we can only ever discuss what is empirical and scientific. Which would have to consign much of philosophy to the dustbin, as I see it. And surely, following the process sociology line, you've taken a huge liberty by saying that "we as a species treat each other vastly better than we did 500 or 100 or 50 or 10 years ago". What's 'better'?

OK, I'm being somewhat fatuous with that, as I know exactly what you mean. But it also depends on where you're from. Sure, in western Europe we treat each other in a way that is generally considered to be decent, but there are people living in vast swathes of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America who do not get the same notions of equality and respect granted to them. And things are as liable to get worse for many of them as they are to get better. Which is certainly no testament to any kind of progress for humanity.

Thanks for the Elias links, I'd completely forgotten to check him out after a mention you gave him here a couple of years ago when I wrote something about Ivan Illich. Seems like a sound head.

Just to reiterate, too, I'm not a John Grayvangelist, I just appreciate a provocative thinker and was throwing that out there.