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Gray's Anatomy | The Nation

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Gray's Anatomy

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While Gray has without a doubt traveled a long way to the intellectual terrain he currently occupies, I regard his current position as something of a return to familiar ground. Although he no longer exalts the magic of the free market or the human passions he believed it to unleash, there is something unmistakably conservative, I think, about antihumanism--whether in its religious, Heideggerian, Althusserian, poststructuralist or "biocentric" varieties. The humanist persuasion, at its best, is about possibilities. It is the belief, as Richard Rorty puts it, that "if we can work together, we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming." Hostility to that impulse emanates from what I can't help but think of as a conservative place in the psyche, whatever philosophical attire one dresses it in.

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Danny Postel
Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author...

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In a sense, then, Gray has come full circle. But, in keeping with his intellectual restlessness, he has shuffled his theoretical deck yet again--somewhat. His latest effort, Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, while not without problems, is chock-full of interesting observations and stimulating insights. While Gray presents this short book as something of a conceptual sequel to Straw Dogs, the new volume contains arguments that manage to emerge intact from the wreckage left behind by its predecessor.

Gray aims in Al Qaeda to disabuse us of the idea that the central drama of contemporary geopolitics is a confrontation between the forces of modern liberal democracy on one side and those of atavistic antimodernism on the other. He spurns the notion that modernization as such is the ticket to emancipation and happiness. Two of the most murderous political experiments in history, Nazism and Stalinism, were profoundly modern, he points out. While modernity saw liberal democracy and pluralism, it also saw the concentration camp and the gulag. Conversely, citing the tolerance practiced "in Buddhist India, in the Ottoman Empire and the Moorish kingdoms of medieval Spain, and in China," he argues that there "is nothing peculiarly liberal, western or modern about the peaceful coexistence of communities having different values and beliefs."

Al Qaeda is also in part a reprise of False Dawn. Gray is out to lambaste the fantasies of economic globalizers and liberal universalists alike. "Neo-liberal utopians expected that globalisation would fill the world with liberal republics, linked together in peace and trade." Instead, Gray reports, "history is responding with a flowering of war, tyranny and empire." In case the world needed reminding that the modernist vision of a future shaped by the spread of universal values was dangerously delusional, Gray contends, it got it on September 11--with a vengeance.

Al Qaeda, Gray argues, is a thoroughly modern organism. It is modern "not only in the fact that it uses satellite phones, laptop computers and encrypted websites" but in its predilection for "spectacular encounters in which dissemination of media images is a core strategy." But, one might rejoin, these are purely technical appropriations, not ideological affinities; Al Qaeda makes pragmatic use of modern means but in pursuit of its decidedly antimodern ends. Gray's response is that Al Qaeda's ideology is a "typical modern hybrid," mixing elements of tradition with the Bolshevik concept of the revolutionary vanguard. In the Taliban, he finds resonances not so much with medievalism as with that quintessentially twentieth-century creature, Pol Pot.

But even Al Qaeda's arguably premodern features, Gray argues, enable the organization to operate effectively under the hypermodern complexity of globalization. With its "informal banking systems (hawala) that are global in their reach and whose operations are effectively untraceable," and possessing the "cellular structures of drug cartels and the flattened networks of virtual business corporations," Al Qaeda doesn't resist the forces of globalization--it harnesses them. (A minor quibble: Conspicuously absent from this discussion is any mention of Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld, a work that effectively prefigured Gray's formulation by nearly a decade. At least a passing reference might have been in order.)

Rejecting the modern/antimodern prism, Gray views the nature of global conflict today in terms of "population growth, shrinking energy supplies and irreversible climate change"; "ethnic and religious enmities and the collapse or corrosion of the state in many parts of the world"; the emergence of "political organizations, irregular militias and fundamentalist networks" made all the more ominous given the dissemination of highly lethal weapons. Taken together, Gray contends, these developments spell almost certain disaster.

Actually, you can drop the "almost." There is a strikingly deterministic and fatalistic streak in Gray. Scattered throughout the book are formulations like: "The population of European Russia will be more than decimated"; "geopolitical upheaval is unavoidable"; "there is nothing to be done about this"; "a consequence of the universal fact of entropy." Sound familiar? The tone of ironclad inevitability is one of the carry-overs from Straw Dogs. As Adair Turner recently pointed out in the English journal Prospect, Gray's rigid determinism is more than a bit ironic given his ruthless critique of positivism for its insistence that the growth of scientific knowledge would inevitably lead to a utopian future--one of Gray's central themes in Al Qaeda.

But this tension pales in comparison with a much more fundamental problem in Gray's project. For all of his insights into our geopolitical situation and his monitions about the perilous path we're on, when one reads the two books in tandem, the effect is one of moral numbness. If one follows the argument of Straw Dogs (as we can only assume Gray does), what difference does it make whether the human species avoids its collision course with doom? If we should look forward to a time "when humans have ceased to matter," as Gray exhorts us to do in Straw Dogs, what's the point of even considering the proposals he offers in Al Qaeda for fashioning a less calamitous future? How can the apocalyptic antihumanism of Straw Dogs be squared with the claim, in the concluding chapter of Al Qaeda, that "we need to think afresh about how regimes and ways of life that will always be different can come to coexist in peace"?

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