Sidestepping at the RCA: John Gray

Sidestepping, the brilliant series of lectures aiming to ‘come at architecture from different angles’, has been filled with interesting speakers all through its run, and has been a testament to RCA Head of Architecture Nigel Coates’ diverse vision of what the subject can include. John Gray, former head of European Thought at the LSE and eminent philosopher, economist and sociologist, however, has to be one of the biggest stretches. What does a man who has just written a book about immortality have to say about architecture? Very little, taken in a literal sense – but everything if you think more deeply about what architecture really is.

Gray began by establishing the paradoxes implicit to the word ‘modern’. The idea of modernity is a curious one: we are taught to assume that if it’s new, it’s better – that everyone should want to modernise, as if it’s inherently beneficial. A prime minister who claimed they ddn’t want to modernise the country, for example, would be an anomaly.

Modern myths

One of Gray’s latest preoccupations is the idea of modern myths. Freud didn’t think illusions could be removed from modern thinking, and Gray doesn’t believe myths can be removed from modern thinking. And why should they be? As Gray sees it, all those who participate in the myth use it to give their life meaning. Harmful? Primarily because it is always so easily falsified – the world will deviate from your mythical view of it regularly, and you will then have a nasty surprise to cope with.

Of these modern myths, the two Gray discussed at length were

  1. the idea that human progress = error correction
  2. our idea of humanity working as a collective agent

The first myth, explained more slowly, is that gains can be transmitted from one generation to the next – and not easily lost. If you were to have said 5-10 years ago that torture could be re-normalised extremely quickly, no-one would have believed you. At the end of WW2, for example, people were sentenced to hard labour for waterboarding. A few years ago in the New Statesman, Gray published a spoof essay called ‘Torture: a modern proposal’ based on Jonathan Swift’s Irish famine spoof. Months later, he found out about Abu Ghraib – and now torture is regularly used in anti-insurgency wars.

So a generation’s ethical gain, prohibition of torture, is swiftly followed by the next’s ethical loss – the re-normalization of torture. And once lost, it’s hard to regain.

Gray revealed: It’s widely believed that Bradley Manning, the Wikileaks contributor, is currently being subjected to sleep deprivation; allegedly as part of night-time checks to prevent him committing suicide, and so “for his own good”. And thus: the renormalization of torture, now even being justified as something positive.

Slavery, the prohibition of which was another of humanity’s major ethical gains, effectively came back in the twentieth century through leaderships by Hitler, Stalin, and the Gulags in China, argues Gray. And global human trafficking, the owning of people, is still prevalent – which is very much a form of slavery.

The reality of what the world is heading towards is hybridisation – cyclical advancement and regression

Gray reveals that Darwin, in his autobiography, stated: “Natural selection has no purpose. It blows like the wind”. On the last page of Origin of the Species, however, he backs away from this idea, insisting that natural selection is progress to perfection. This was due to societal pressures which needed to attach meaning to human progress. Even today, could we accept a random order, a lack of meaning and lack of progress in our evolution?

Darwin’s hastily rewritten decision that natural selection is a process of progress to perfection, however, was designed to chime perfectly with the ruling myth of Victorian times among the intellectual elite. Paranormal investigations in Victorian times believed in posthumous progress – scientists working on the other side pursuing eugenics, and specifically crafting a eugenic Messiah. Eugenics is in essence a very powerful idea of a progressive science, as Gray points out. It’s in practise that the horrors of the idea become all too apparent.

We tend to believe that these mad pockets of intellectual theory always used to exist, but don’t any more, Gray argues. Consider this – up until the crash it was widely believed that we were in the “Great Moderation”, that the economy would always be steady and we would continue to grow. Then we crashed – and all of that should be disproven now.

Immortality by upload

Gray is also taken, as are many modern-day philosophers, with the idea of transhumanism. He introduced his audience to Transcend, a diet book focussing on how to be thin forever. It differs from your average diet book in that it posits that if you live long enough, you will experience an explosion of knowledge and be uploaded to virtual reality. As explained by Gray, we can account for all of human history up to present times because of biological and geographical factors – but in the next age might we not be biological any more – might we be “post-human”? And if so, it follows, we will no longer be subject to chance.

Gray doesn’t believe that this myth of progress can be dropped – it’s encrypted in societies and without it we would be rudderless. But we need to stand away from it.

Doing more with less

The United States is a decreasingly pivotal power, due to two main factors:

  1. debts piling up: the US illusion of higher living standards is propped up by increasing debt
  2. military structure unsustainable

It’s like Britain in the early twentieth century, Gray posits. The maximum extent of the British Empire was in 1939; twenty years later, it was gone. And Americans as a nation are now having to experience something completely new to them – a fall in their standard of living.
Britain will get this too, of course, and we haven’t had it since the 1930s – but it’s in our history, we are as a nation used to ruin. Other countries will react bitterly, notably the US, and with more shock. We will all, internationally, have to become adept at doing more with less. And this will be painful because for many years of New Labour, growth and rising house prices, we have become very used to doing less with more.

The return of rationing

There are interesting studies into how our lives are already changing, as outlined by Gray. Walmart now issues food cards, opening the stores at 11 to browsers. Then at midnight, shoppers can buy using their food cards. Waitrose is restructuring too, so that cheaper food is easier to pick off the shelves.

Consider this: the price of wheat has doubled in a year. Environmental constraints (running out of oil, primarily) are still very much looming – we have just forgotten about them, as they have been overshadowed by other concerns (Middle East/recession/most recently, Japan).

What keeps governments in? Increasing living standards.

An interesting point to note is that a lot of China’s surplus is in dollars – which they’re afraid the US will deplete to almost nothing in order to floor them. Gray claims that during the financial crash, Western governments were within hours of a situation where, if you went to an ATM, there would be no money to draw out. And if that had come to be, the mass panic would have been unmanageable – the government simply had to reliquify.

Returning to the path of growth is not going to happen.

“Fear mutates into poisonous politics of hatred” – racism, anti-immigration, escalating prejudices. We can’t let that atmosphere develop, it will strangle us. Gray maintains, “When they’re afraid, people tend to start attacking each other”.

The changes will ignite new novels, movies, new forms of art.

Gray believes we should encourage the skills of successful and intelligent improvisation – because the world is changing rapidly. The next generation will have to have portfolio careers, develop larger networks, and adapt quickly – but they want them, they have, and they will.

Nigel Coates proferred an interesting question:

To be an architect/designer you have to believe your work could improve the world. Where does this view of progress leave us?

Gray replied: “If you believe we will get poorer, then you should develop humane, efficient and low-cost structure in which we could live. It depends on your vision of the future.”

Unknown knowns

This is a favourite phrase of Gray’s, a twist on the idea of “known unknowns”. Uknown knowns are the things we know but don’t want to think about. For example: we’re running out of energy, and will have to change our lifestyles quite radically very soon. What’s the answer? Reduce our addiction to oil. But the dependency is worldwide now, and America is one of the most reliant.

It’s time to start thinking about the unknown knowns.


For further – read a sympathetic portrait of Gray by Deborah Orr in the Independent.

And for balance – read Johann Hari’s article on the biggest lie in British politics (which contradicts the basis of Gray’s argument here).

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Sidestepping at the RCA: John Gray