John Gray is Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. A former supporter of the New Right, he has since revised his views, and now believes that the conventional political solutions of conservatism and social democracy are no longer viable. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement and is the author of many books on political theory, including: Straw Dogs (Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals), Al Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern, False Dawn (The Delusions of Global Capitalism) & Heresies (Against Progress and Other Illusions). He didn't write Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus!
A note on the interview: We had originally planned to do the interview with John Gray in person, but circumstances intervened (like the Creel HQ being notoriously hard to find!), so we ended up doing this over email. Hence the somewhat irregular layout of this interview, whereby we basically submitted a load of questions to John Gray to answer as he saw best. These have been arranged in broad topic areas.
ON APATHY and the like?.
ED - Most of the people I know who have read Straw Dogs have greatly appreciated its central tenets, but there has been one continuing criticism. Many see that your arguments against the idea of human progress promote a feeling of individual powerlessness and even promote apathy? what would your response be to that?
JAMIE - What do you think individuals should do about the precarious state of things? We may understand that humanity as a whole is by its own nature more or less doomed. But should this lead us to a position of apathy or indifference?
ED - I read several of your books and found that a great burden of guilt had been lifted from my shoulders. Personally I can get on with my life as a musician without feeling that saving the world is a responsibility that I am shirking? In light of the rapaciousness of the species in general? can recycling really help, or should we just await Armageddon with a smirk?
JOHN - You argue that humanity is not in a great state: it?s quite likely that we?ll face Malthusian catastrophes over the coming decades as a result of our rapaciousness. ?Humanity is a myth? there are only humans, using the growing power of knowledge given them by science to pursue their conflicting ends.? I suppose that these are things that many people are aware of and you aren?t the first to draw attention to these problems. However, the reason that your writing is particularly illuminating is in your argument that this is just the way we humans are. To quote from Straw Dogs, ?can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?? We are what we are; we?re incapable of doing much to stop what we are doing. Some would find this somewhat nihilistic. You are diagnosing the problems with brutal honesty and dashing the illusions, yet you don?t really offer any solutions. And yet somehow your writing is not full of despair and one senses that you yourself remain curious (lord knows, you agreed to be interviewed by us!). Does the realisation of our true nature and the damage we?re doing lead you to despair and depression, or rather does it lift a burden of guilt from the individual?s shoulders as we understand what we truly are, and that our passing (and indeed the potential demise our species) may indeed be a blessing for the earth?s other inhabitants?
JAMES - In your work you take the analytical knife to all our illusions and show them to be bunk. With the illusions shattered, where do you personally find your happiness??
CHRIS - Are we just Salmon? i.e. can an individual make a difference, and if he does is it just luck/randomness?
When people talk of the need to save the world, what they really mean is the need to give their own lives a meaning. The belief that we have a duty to save the world is a residue of Christianity. In truth the world can't be stopped or saved, and the idea that any of us can alter its course is an illusion. There's nothing wrong with simply contemplating the Earth, or going about one's own life, without ever trying to alter the condition of things.
If we feel the need to improve the world, we should aim to do good in minute particulars - not imagine we can settle the fate of the species. If some humans or animals or plants are the better for what we do, that is enough. The rest can be left to be as it will be.
If I ask myself what would do the most good at the present time, I'd say extending birth control to everyone and abandoning farming for high-tech food production. That would slow or reverse human population growth, and allow farmland to become wilderness again - to the benefit of many other forms of life, and of humans. This wouldn't require any moral regeneration; but it's a mistake to identify the good life with living according to a received idea of virtue.
ED - From the final essay in ?Heresies?? quoting Guy Debord ? ?the manufacture of a present where fashion itself from clothes to music has come to a halt?. Is achieved by the ceaseless circulation of information, always returning to the same short list of trivialities, passionately proclaimed as major discoveries.? Do you believe pop is merely eating itself? And can that be a worthwhile endeavour??
JAMIE - Talking about the film The Matrix, you write that ?they suggest that the view of the things propagated by the media cannot be other than unreal?. The name Creel Commission was chosen partly because we recognize the paradoxical relationship that a band must play with the media in that to raise dialog about the media we must use it, engage it and subsequently inevitably be used by it. Do you think it is possible to engage with it whilst simultaneously subverting it? or is the medium just the message? Do you have any tips for keeping one?s integrity in relation to the media?
ED - There was a recent article in the Times stating that politicians are now in deference to pop stars? people are more likely to listen to Bono and Geldof, or Chris Martin and Thom Yorke than they are to trust politicians?. How can this have come about and why? It seems that people are becoming more trustworthy of the ?emotional honesty? that resonates from some of these stars, than of the supposed ?intellectual honesty? that supposedly comes from politicians? are we reverting to some kind of tribal level of trust?
JAMIE - As a band we have set ourselves the task to become agents of awareness for the younger generation by trying to be vocal about ideas we are interested and are passionate about. Do you think this is a worthwhile goal for a band to undertake? If so why and if not then what is?
JAMIE - In Heresies you write that freedom is won and lost in cycles and that history is essentially cyclical with certain themes such as human fallibility continually recurring. What role should/could music/arts play in relation to effecting these cycles?
JOHN - Do you feel that Rock and Roll/Pop music has any educational and culturally transformative effects, and generally do you like it? (also enclosed is our potential first single and b-side. We?d love to know what you make of it.)
Music and the other arts such as poetry can change individual lives, but I'm sceptical about their capacity to effect political change. At their best music and poetry communicate features of human life that don't change much (which is why we can still be moved by Shakespeare, or Homer). We tend to think art civilizes people, or makes them morally better. I wonder if it does, or should even try. A better aim would be simply to open people's eyes, and give them some pleasure or wonder along the way.
As to the Creel Commission's relations with the media: the paradoxes that arise there are inescapable and insoluble. After all, it wasn't very long before Debord's ideas became a part of the spectacle. The most the band can do - and it's a lot - is to be open and candid at each stage of the process.
History does move in cycles, but we are in a time when that fact is denied. What would art look like today, if it were not animated by a belief in moral or political progress? Francis Bacon gave one answer. J.G. Ballard's novel The Unlimited Dream Company is another. I think the latter, lyrical and surrealist response has been under-explored.
I listened to your first potential single and b-side with pleasure - the mix of rhythm, truth-telling and humour is very effective.
ED - Last century and in all previous societies, the political response to war was always to encourage thrift. The recent response to 9/11 can only be described as spendthrift. Politicians encourage us to go out and keep consuming to sustain our world...what are your thoughts on this highly bizarre scenario?
What are your thoughts on the current vogue for oxymoronic Orwellian speak?. Sustainable Development, War on Terror etc?
JAMIE - You seem to express a philosophic detachment in relation to man?s position in the world when you write that ?the human animal is itself only a passing tremor in the life of the planet?. Do you think we are heading for a great war? If so what will be its aftermath?
JOHN - My two questions both stem from your thoughts on our na´ve belief in human unity and the belief in universal sets of values.
The Iraq war seemed to incense you. Please elaborate on why this was, and what you think of the current situation.
Do you feel that the recent ?No? votes in Europe justify your belief that the whole European project is doomed? And is this something that you take a Euro sceptics? delight in, or were you merely pointing out that we seem incapable of transcending our national boarders. And if we are, doesn?t this further bode unwell for humanity?
It's a shrewd observation that the response to 9/11 was to encourage us all to consume and borrow more. The attack was a threat to the world economy as well as to security. But this may reflect a speeding-up of events rather than a basic change - thrift has often been encouraged during wartime, but the aftermath of war has very often been inflation or even boom.
I don't expect a very big war anytime soon, though I wouldn't rule it out later in the century. The real threat to current human life and numbers comes from climate change more than from war, but the two could become intertwined as the struggle for control of natural resources intensifies. It's hard to predict the aftermath, since we don't yet know how radical the ongoing climate shift will be.
On sustainable development etc... The fact is that the energy-and-resource-intensive lifestyle of the most developed countries is unsustainable. The function of Orwellian oxymorons is to conceal real contradictions.
I do think the European project is dead, and it will be very difficult to replace. As usual history is moving on regardless of what politicians and opinion-formers think or say.
JOHN / JAMIE / ED - Life is extremely complex and history cyclical. We are not evolving towards a state of near perfection. Technology is an illusory beast: its benefits come hand in hand with its pitfalls. In many ways, your thinking seems to be imbued with ideas from the east (Buddhism in particular), and yet is also grounded with a healthy skepticism. Do you draw inspiration from eastern philosophy? Do you find any inspiration in mysticism? Do you have any spiritual beliefs?
It's true I've drawn inspiration from Eastern thought, particularly Daoism, but western poetry is also important. As I understand it, mysticism doesn't mean any specific religious belief, but instead an attitude to the world - one that doesn't see the world as an object to be changed or controlled. Here poetry and mysticism are at one. Recall what Keats said in his letters about "negative capability" - "that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason". You can find this attitude in many of our English poets - Hardy and Ted Hughes, for example. I think it's this attitude, perhaps more than any other, that's most lacking at the present time, and most needed.
Two articles by John Gray that may be of further interest are here:
On the London bomings (Guardian)
The end of globalisation (Resurgence)
Interview added 08-07-2005