Field Report 1: John Gray at Borders

To the Charing Cross Borders for John Gray’s talk on his book about Al-Qaeda.

A laugh a minute, as you’d expect. Everyone looked terribly serious. They gave us vouchers to get 10% off philosophy books, but I still don’t trust them – spent the evening facing a large section sign which spelt ‘Archaeology’ wrongly. You’re in Britain now, Borders, and we use two ‘a’s.

Fewer men had glasses than one might expect. I wore an average amount of stubble for the crowd (apporx. 3-4 days), but I would have fitted in better had I worn my battered leather jacket. Unfortunately, it’s started to smell funny.

Most of the girls seemed to have D. Bowie Haircuts (Would Bowie like Gray, or Gray Bowie? The Diamond Dogs period could be an influence on Gray’s bleak vision of the future, but I did not have a chance to ask him.) I think the haircuts were unintentional – mostly Eton Crops that had drifted far from their birth in the salon. The Alien girl from Galaxy Quest was sitting behind me:

space chick

That was curious.

We were told, by a pink thin continental woman, that this event was being presented by ‘The Forum For European Philosophy’. Their aim is to make European Philosophy more popular (my advice – change the name, toots. Try ‘F1l0sotr0n’, or ‘The Holy Order of Truth Seekers’, or ‘The Last Cowboys’, or anything really. I’m just not getting excitement.)

Straw Dogs was an inspiring book, she told us wrongly, then Gray appeared. He wore a well-co-ordinated outfit – mustard jumper, caramel jacket, chocolate shirt – but it still looked a little shabby-donnish. I think academic journals are impregnated with some kind of skin-greying chemical. Stay away, kids.

He said roughly the following:

Al Qaeda are presented to us as an anti-modern mediaeval fascists. This is wrong. Al Qaeda are truly modern. Fascism is a distinctively modern ideology, and AQ have been made possible by the particular conditions of the last twenty years – technological advance and the collapse of states.

Radical Islam in general draws on nineteenth and twentieth century late Enlightenment thought – there are elements of Anarchism, Leninism, and Nietzschean philosophy. We can go back to Jacobinism, but the Positivists are the real root.

At this point, I took a dislike to the girl sitting next to me when I saw how sensible her shoes were. She got out a bottle of water, and drank from it. I bet it wasn’t even real bottled water. She looked like she’d top it up from a Brita Water Filter. I just can’t bring myself to trust people with fleeces.

Positivism rests on three principles: the reality of scientific progress; this progress enabling universal convergence towards a rational world view; and this scientific convergence abolishing scarcity.

This lies behind most ideologies of the last century: the first premise is true, the second two are fundamentally wrong. In fact, AQ provide an experimental falsification of this. No rational convergence towards liberalism or marxism. Wars over dwindling natural resources will take place more and more. True modernity, then, is simply the advance of technology, and the unpredictable consequences of this – e.g. AQ.

We are fucked.

Here it occured to me that Francis Wheen, who’d received a bad review from Gray, was speaking over the road at Foyles. Two points follow – 1)How could I arrange a fistfight? 2)Who would win? I think Gray. He’s a Geordie. It was a bit like the Big Brother announcer explaining that the chief legacy of Comte and Saint-Simon was the mass extermination of humanity in the twentieth century.

The Q and A was fun. Zingers all the way.

Marxist in a duffel coat :”Don’t you think fascism is the crisis of capitalism?”
JG: “I don’t engage with marxism, any more than creationism”.

Angry SWPer: “You’re very dismissive of the situationists…”
JG: “Cults like the situationists, who were fortunately very weak and trivial in Europe, or Baader-Meinhoff…”

At the end, a man with a balloon seemed to be going up to him. Does Gray like balloons?

A parting one-liner from Gray to cheer your walk home? “Madrid can happen here. In fact, it probably will.”