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The Silence of Animals
June 13, 2013 8:43 AM   Subscribe

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. Simon Critchley gives both an overview of philosopher John Gray's thought and reviews Gray's new book.
posted by TrolleyOffTheTracks (36 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Isn't this all a bit paradoxical, though? I mean, what's the point of railing against the delusions of meliorism if you genuinely believe that there's no such thing? Surely Gray believes that history could have a positive upward trend: he believes that people could read his books, be convinced by them and live lives that are better and more satisfying than the lives they currently live. In other words, the very premise on which the impulse to write those books at all is founded belies their argument.
posted by yoink at 9:02 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Gray's talking of humility, nuance, small-c conservatism, and grim realism as opposed to the ascendant progressive fundamentalism.

He won't make a lot of friends, but I'm already in line for a second helping!
posted by General Tonic at 9:15 AM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm just glad that somebody is thinking about these things. No political people are.
posted by Hobgoblin at 9:23 AM on June 13, 2013


I like how this work by Gray emphasizes that the other life-forms with which we share the planet also have their own modes of thinking and being; and that our well-being and theirs depends on our recognition of that fact.
posted by No Robots at 9:24 AM on June 13, 2013


and that our well-being and theirs depends on our recognition of that fact.

And this is a good example of precisely the paradoxical meliorism at the heart of this supposedly anti-meliorist argument.

Surely you either believe that people's fundamental nature can be changed by political and philosophical argument or you don't. Making a philosophical argument that says people's fundamental nature is unchangeable AND claiming that the world will become a better place when everyone is convinced of this fact is simply incoherent.
posted by yoink at 9:30 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Based on my reading of the Critchley review and not the book, it sounds as if Gray is not arguing against meliorism and concedes that science has helped improve life in some ways, but that such improvements grant no special meaning not only to biological life but especially to humans, who also are making life quite miserable for many beings, itself among those.

Meaning or purpose is not the same as improving the condition of life and that is not the same as progress because progress implies a goal, whether that be a secular utopia or a religious second coming. The point I take is that by renouncing such goals, meanings, and purposes, humans could make life much better in the short time we inhabit the planet without feeling as if we are the high point of evolution, knowing that we will disappear as the dinosaurs did and be replaced by something else. I don't see the paradox.
posted by perhapses at 9:40 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Who on Earth actually believes in the giant straw man Gray is so intent on getting off his lawn anyway? His critique of "liberal humanism" is based on a misunderstanding: no one believes progress is a real thing that exists independently as an absolute force in nature. The notion of "progress" he attributes as a quasi-mystical faith to "liberal humanism" represents an aspirational ideal--the mere hope that it might be possible for human beings working together to improve their own living conditions. It's not some sacred religious belief, but simply the modest claim that it should be possible to improve the quality of people's lives and achieve goals that benefit people generally through deliberate effort and action.

What alternative other than throwing up your hands and just saying, "Whelp, we're all just dry leaves blowing in the wind and there's nothing that can be done about the way the wind blows" as a response to every problem is there that's not mere nihilism or a more self-congratulatory form of defeatism? Imagine if we dealt with all our personal problems this way. Can't afford to pay an unexpected bill? Oh well, there's no such things as "progress" anyway, so I think I'll just sit here and reflect on how dumb it would be of me to imagine I could ever actually do something about my financial problems.

I really don't get what the point of his project is.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:41 AM on June 13, 2013


Here's the nugget someone is looking for:

What he offers is a gloriously pessimistic cultural analysis, which rightly reduces to rubble the false idols of the cave of liberal humanism. Counter to the upbeat progressivist evangelical atheism of the last decade, Gray provides a powerful argument in favor of human wickedness that’s still consistent with Darwinian naturalism. It leads to passive nihilism: an extremely tempting worldview, even if I think the temptation must ultimately be refused.
posted by General Tonic at 9:42 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The point I take is that by renouncing such goals, meanings, and purposes, humans could make life much better in the short time we inhabit the planet without feeling as if we are the high point of evolution, knowing that we will disappear as the dinosaurs did and be replaced by something else. I don't see the paradox.

A project of transforming humanity into a species that doesn't use goals to orient itself toward the world doesn't seem like a project with a goal to you?
posted by saulgoodman at 9:43 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


A project of transforming humanity into a species that doesn't use goals to orient itself toward the world doesn't seem like a project with a goal to you?

Exactly. "Abandon this ridiculous quest for 'meaning' and you'll discover that your life is so much more meaningful!" Er...what now?
posted by yoink at 9:50 AM on June 13, 2013


Humanity doesn't, and can't, have a goal itself. Billions of humans have individual goals, many of which are in direct conflict with each other. As much as we can attempt to synchronize our goals, it still doesn't supply humanity with a single purpose or meaning.

Aren't we all throwing up our hands in defeat, given what we know about climate change? There is no reason to save humanity. None. Our primary religions, our myths, our entertainment reinforces the idea that we will be wiped out.

(on preview) Abandon your search for meaning and you'll find your life is so much less stressful.
posted by perhapses at 9:51 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Humanity doesn't, and can't, have a goal itself.

That's an unproven and highly specious assertion.

I could just as easily say a complex organism made of billions of individual biological cells each with its own motivations and biological needs can't have a goal itself. It's just a collection of individuals with individual, private goals of their own. But that's not how the real world works. It's fuzzier and more complex than our abstractions about the world can reflect. And in real life, emergent goals and intentions are very much real possibilities.

Can a football team have a goal? If you can say yes, then you can say the same about a society or any other higher order system of humans cooperating.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:03 AM on June 13, 2013


Are Football teams aren't conscious? If not, how can they have goals?
posted by oddman at 10:05 AM on June 13, 2013


Good point. Humanity's goal might very well be to destroy itself, based on its history.
posted by perhapses at 10:06 AM on June 13, 2013


...and you'll discover that your life is so much more meaningful

Isn't the point of mysticism that you don't know--can't know--what you will discover until you undergo it? Because until then, until you're emptied out, you are full of plans and ideas and goals, which you find obscuring your view.

It doesn't strike me as a contradiction to suggest releasing oneself (and one's culture) from goals, since in the process, the person undergoing this would also be releasing himself from that vision, too. Giving up one's own utopia, as well as that garish one promised by the state.
posted by mittens at 10:08 AM on June 13, 2013


Of course they're conscious. They have the ability to see and respond to the other team, don't they? Are you conscious? Which one part of you is the part that makes you conscious? Your brain? Which one of the billions of living cells each doing its own thing is where your goals come from? Higher-level goals emerge from the interaction of individual, private goal-driven lower-level systems all the time in nature.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:09 AM on June 13, 2013


Collective goals emerge from the interaction of individual, private goal-driven systems all the time in nature.

See, that's what I like about this essay. If you're seeing a line of ants heading straight for your picnic--acting as a collective colony with a goal in mind--the best solution is to de-colonize them, turn them back into individuals by brushing them away.
posted by mittens at 10:12 AM on June 13, 2013


It's amazing how many ways learned people can come up with to say "Fuck it all."

And it's equally amazing how comfortable and upper- and middle-class their lives are.
posted by grubi at 10:21 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is some confusion here about meliorism as a function of biology, and meliorism as a function of culture. He rightly denies the reality of the former, but in doing so does not seem to recognize the undeniable reality of the latter. This is because his point is that our culture is dominated increasingly by the false doctrine of biologic meliorism.
posted by No Robots at 10:21 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


No Robots, that clears my thinking about how the only "goal" of natural selection is survival through reproduction. As much as humans like to focus on the improvements in our own evolution over thousands of years, there is a flip side to our evolved consciousness, some of which include depression, mental illness, racism, etc.
posted by perhapses at 10:37 AM on June 13, 2013


As much as humans like to focus on the improvements in our own evolution over thousands of years

This is what some have called "biological meliorism" isn't it? Evolution doesn't "improve" anything--even in the best case, it only makes a creature better fitted to living in its current ecological niche (which might disappear tomorrow, so it's hard to say how evolution improves a species in any meaningful, general sense).

Let's see, FWIW, Wikipedia says this about meliorism:

It holds that humans can, through their interference with processes that would otherwise be natural, produce an outcome which is an improvement over the aforementioned natural one.

Not sure how much sense it makes to see human action as any less natural than the actions of bees or ants, but leaving that conceptual rat-trap aside for the moment, isn't it trivially obvious that some form of meliorism is true? A man has a heart attack, a medical doctor can treat him and a significant portion of the time, improve on what would have been the "natural outcome." Why does this guy seem to think that progress in this sense is only possible in the domain of scientific knowledge?

This just seems like a very elaborate exercise in creating new excuses not to care about solving problems that emerge at the level of a society rather than at the individual level.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:09 AM on June 13, 2013


I should have said that humans like to see improvements and not imply that they actually are improvements. But that does keep in line with your following point regarding our own improvements over nature. It is easier to focus on those that are beneficial while downplaying those that are destructive.

It's not about creating new excuses not to care about solving societal problems but getting people to overcome the things that block our ability to truly tackle the problems that are most threatening. It's like the Cold War but instead of nuclear weapons, we're threatening each other with our idealized way of life, not willing to give up anything even if it ruins the conditions for sustaining our way of life.
posted by perhapses at 11:22 AM on June 13, 2013


Yeah, count me among those who suspect that Gray is making a case against principles that not many people even believe anymore. Progress? How many people still seriously believe that human cultural progress is destined to be ever onwards and upwards? Not many, I think. And utopias? With the exception of a few true believers on the market-side, widespread faith in utopias disappeared around the middle of the 20th century, by the last third at very latest. The "political realism" that Gray thinks he is describing so acutely, a description of "the world ... in a state of ceaseless conflict" is trite and is, in fact, an assumption that liberals and social democrats take for granted, IME. (American liberals are skeptical of the self-organizing virtues of the market or of a particular class in part because the world is believed to be a place of ceaseless conflict.) Finally, the assertion that "Obamaism" is the quintessential example of utopianism suggests an unfamiliarity with a man who has routinely checked Niehbur as an intellectual mentor and whose policies have been repeatedly criticized for being too realist, too pragmatic, and not utopian enough.
The most extreme expression of human arrogance, for Gray, is the idea that human beings can save the planet from environmental devastation.
It may be true that humans can do little to stop environmental devastation—though note that he isn't making the opposite point and if it's granted that humans can destroy the environment, then there's no reason, at least in theory, that humans can't stop that same destruction. Note also, that he's arguing against a case few people are making. Not many people believe that humans can "save" the Earth, whatever that means. What many people do believe is that catastrophic destruction can be averted.
What will define the coming decades? I would wager the following: the political violence of faith, the certainty of environmental devastation, the decline of existing public institutions, ever-growing inequality, and yet more Simon Cowell TV shows. In the face of this horror, Gray offers a cool but safe temporary refuge.
Certainly a refuge for those who can afford to read John Gray and the LA Review of Books.

Despite this, I'm not entirely unsympathetic to Gray. I just think that Robinson Jeffers already said everything he has to say and already said it better.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:39 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's worth noting that Gray is the child of a dockworker and went to Oxford - as far as I can tell due to the massive "progressive" post-war reforms in the UK education system. I doubt very much that a dockworker's child, no matter how intelligent, would have gotten into Oxford and then climbed the academic ladder absent those reforms.

How to interpret that? I don't know. Does Gray feel that he's experienced liberal humanism and it wasn't worth it and he'd be better off on the docks? Is he just kicking away the ladder he climbed? Is he simply able to have this intensely pessimistic worldview precisely because he can have it in the comfort of a high-status and well-paid job? Does his worldview combined with his rise from the genuine proletariat to the heights of fanciness grant legitimacy to his whole "human beings are pretty terrible and utopian projects do more harm than good" standpoint?

(I always assume that my own pessimism about humans and skepticism about the possibility social change has more to do with my relative comfort and safety than anything else, and that my pessimism - like anyone else's optimism - is partial and standpoint-driven and in that regard rather uninteresting.)
posted by Frowner at 12:02 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Surely you either believe that people's fundamental nature can be ...

Daniel Dennett told me that when people use the word "surely", it's probably the weakest point in their argument. I'd say in this case it's either a false dichotomy, or the assumption that people have "fundamental natures".
posted by benito.strauss at 12:09 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm struck by the fact that John Gray's miserabilist philosophical musings place him at one end of a continuum, with the late-lamented Iain M Banks at the other. Each is/was a writer of speculative prose, posing possible futures. My heart cleaves to the late Iain's Culture as a an aspirational future, but my head bows before the humanity-ablating predictions of Mr Gray...
posted by aeshnid at 12:55 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It does seem that Gray is proferring biologic miserablism in the place of biologic meliorism, in which case he is just as guilty of discounting culture as those whom he attacks.
posted by No Robots at 1:25 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]



I like how this work by Gray emphasizes that the other life-forms with which we share the planet also have their own modes of thinking and being; and that our well-being and theirs depends on our recognition of that fact.


Citation needed.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:14 PM on June 13, 2013


The most extreme expression of human arrogance, for Gray, is the idea that human beings can save the planet from environmental devastation. Because they are killer apes who will always deploy violence, force, and terror in the name of some longed-for metaphysical project, human beings cannot be trusted to save their environment. Furthermore — and this is an extraordinarily delicious twist — the earth doesn’t need saving. Here Gray borrows from James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. The ever-warming earth is suffering from disseminated primatemaia, a plague of people. Homo rapiens is savagely ravaging the planet like a filthy pest that has infested a once beautiful, well-appointed, and spacious house. In 1600, the human population was about half a billion. In the 1990s it increased by the same amount. And the acceleration continues. What Gray takes from the Gaia hypothesis is that this plague cannot be solved by the very people who are its cause. It can only be solved by a large-scale decline in human numbers back down to manageable levels. Let’s go back to 1600!

Such is the exhilaratingly anti-humanist, dystopian, indeed Ballardesque, vision of a drowned world at the heart of Gray’s work: when the earth is done with humans, it will recover and the blip of human civilization will be forgotten forever. Global warming is simply one of the periodic fevers that the earth has suffered during its long, nonhuman history. It will recover and carry on. But we cannot and will not.


There is a solution to this. Its to die gloriously - destroy ourselves in something like a nuclear war so that our death as a planet will make a mark, however fleeting, on an uncaring universe. So that we will go out in fire and pain, shining a radioactive candle in the darkness, hearts from hell driving on fire's highway to the end of night, our chorus reverberating through the universe like a Jim Steinman song.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:22 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


> our well-being and theirs depends on our recognition of that fact.
Citation needed.


Look at your dinner.

Your definition of "die gloriously" as the sole measure of well-being isn't widely shared anymore.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:55 PM on June 13, 2013



Your definition of "die gloriously" as the sole measure of well-being isn't widely shared anymore.


An old teacher said that, to many people, leading a meaningless life is worse than death. It seems like people and cultures that still have that idea are doing pretty well at defeating people and cultures that don't still have that ideal.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:03 PM on June 13, 2013


America is currently the strongest nation on the Earth. It is a society based on shopping.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:32 PM on June 13, 2013


Citation needed.
The point is to undergo a kind of movement from the limitations of the human towards a greater inhuman realm of experience that can be had in the observation of plants, birds, landscapes, and even cityscapes....Baker sought to escape the human perspective and look at the world through the eyes of this predatory bird....What’s being attempted is a non-anthropomorphic relation to animals and nature as a whole, where the falcon cannot hear the falconer.
posted by No Robots at 6:07 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is a solution to this. Its to die gloriously

You first, little buddy.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:18 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


No, Charlie, don't immolate yourself! Who will favorite my snark when you're gone?
posted by octobersurprise at 6:26 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The only way to give life meaning is to negate it as absolutely as possible through self-immolation?

I don't know why, but for some reason, this idea sets off my internally-inconsistent theory alarm buzzers...
posted by saulgoodman at 12:12 PM on June 17, 2013


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