John Gray – Master of Puppets

John Gray is one of those philosopher / social commentators that has been dawning on me slowly. Positive mentions since 2008, and that was a link to a “Straw Dogs” post from 2005, and again in 2009 with “Gray’s Anatomy”. Increasingly frequent notices of Guardian pieces picked from social media – including this recent long read “What Scares the New Atheists” – until I eventually went to hear him speak in interview with Will Self a couple of weeks ago. Since then I have for the first time read more than an article, reading his “The Soul of the Marionette“.

First impression is somewhere between Zizek and Eagleton – in the sense of pricking received wisdom on the big issues – unconventional, laconic and erudite, but less flamboyantly so as perhaps befits his surname. Easier to miss until you sit up and concentrate. Until now I’d forgotten my own pre-2014 references already recorded here.

I like what I read. A good read, dead pan as if he’s stating the obvious. If as I do, you already buy what’s wrong with received wisdom – our objectively rational arrogance – as I’ve been calling it for 15 years – then it is obvious. What I don’t buy though is the cup half empty (more like 99% empty) pessimism of his main conclusions – that we are not just misguided and mistaken in our freedoms and competencies to affect the world for mutual benefit, but we are practically helpless and hopeless. Get over ourselves! We are the problem, not part of the solution. Not surprisingly he is accused of the nihilism he naturally denies. We’re doomed, he doesn’t actually say.

His main theme is to sow the seed that a string puppet is more free than we are – a theme he borrows from Heinrich von Kleist. A puppet doesn’t need to expend any effort counteracting gravity, that’s already been taken care of in its puppet world and is therefore free to participate in positive activities. We on the other hand are beset with maintaining and dealing reactively with the infrastructure of living more than acting creatively.

I say main theme, because although it recurs from beginning to end, the main chapter contents are quite distinct topics. Some quite disturbing, by design of course.

In The Puppet Theatre – Roof Gardens, Feathers and Human Sacrifice, he is describing the logic of human sacrifice in Aztec civilisation, obviously perverse to received wisdom. You can’t help develop that uneasy feeling that talking reasonably about positive benefits of such activities is dangerously close to potential supporting arguments for ISIS – a point he eventually makes. It’s an exercise in getting the reader to confront how foreign accepted practice could be.

In Dark Mirrors, Hidden Angels and Algorithmic Prayer Wheels, he contrasts that routine consumption of a small selection of human lives, in an otherwise stable society, with human lives lost in conflict in the mainstream world as we know it. You can’t help feeling he’s unpicking the comfortable arithmetic of Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature – which of course he is. He’s written critical articles on that work before. Life is more complicated than arithmetic, and arithmetic based on inevitably selective data at that, can lead to unintended consequences.

I like the assured style of declarative writing without pausing to insert supporting references. Maybe it appeals to my “knowing” mentality, but the book is properly referenced, in page-numbered notes at the end of the text.

Two connected topics, where I disagree with his apparent conclusions. Sure, looking at cybernetics as a machine view of systems, and then hoping to use such a view to find free-will and some privileged form of human consciousness in the mechanistic functioning of our brains is a fools quest. But, cybernetics is only a machine view to the computer geeks who’ve come to dominate our tech-driven world. In reality how information is organised and processed to govern our decisions is independent of machine based systems, independent of any physical substrate – or at least it was when Wiener and co developed the idea. It was exploitation of the idea by the “military-industrial machine” – to fund the same people who invented it – that channeled it into computer systems technology.

Some great stuff on conspiracy theories and the quest for meaning. And a dozen other references – in the end notes – that I need to follow-up, not least E M Forster and Nassim Taleb. A thoroughly worthwhile and disconcerting, though-provoking read.


[Post Note : Hadn’t noticed this 2014 piece by Gray on Dawkins’ closed mind. A man after my own … purely Darwinian evolution of mental models (eg science) tends to mediocrity, a series of lowest common denominators, enough to survive (survive falsification) but not anything fundamentally true or excellent. Apparently Balfour had pointed this out already.]

2 thoughts on “John Gray – Master of Puppets”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.