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'Because we're fucked': Skinner vs GrayAuthor: Simon Sellars • Dec 15th, 2008 •
This is a bizarre match up: Mike Skinner of the Streets in conversation with the philosopher John Gray:
It seemed a good idea to put the pop star and the professor together, and so they met for a wide-ranging conversation — covering the art of storytelling and the imminent collapse of Western capitalism — in a north London pub hours before Skinner’s performance at the BBC Electric Proms.
MS: Isn’t it dangerous to say evil is natural?
JG: It’s the opposite. I’m a big fan of JG Ballard…
MS: I’m halfway through High-rise
JG: The very book I was going to mention! Ballard says that people from Catholic countries are less shocked by his books than people from Protestant countries, because they still believe in original sin – there are murderers and psychopaths inside us. It doesn’t mean you accept that state of affairs, it means you have rules and conventions which stand in the way. That’s what used to be called civilisation – though, of course, there’s nowhere that’s more than half-civilised. In general, I’m interested in looking at what’s happening now and trying to deal with it. For instance, climate change is not fully solvable…
MS: Because it’s natural or… because we’re fucked?
JG: [Laughs] Well, my best understanding is that the planet is not like a clock that we can wind back. Once the carbon is in the system, there are inexorable results. Also, there’s global dimming – the darkening of the skies by pollution, which also makes the world cooler than it would otherwise be. Getting rid of pollution too quickly could accelerate global warming.
Most greens are horrified by the thought that we can’t stop climate change, but that’s childish. Am I telling people to give up? No. In Holland, for instance, they’re giving back land to the sea and building more on stilts because they expect sea levels to rise… and I find that uplifting, even though it’s a very sober approach.
I don’t know about Skinner, but Gray’s had a lot of interesting things to say about Ballard in the past, often when he’s applying this particular world view that he’s explaining here to Skinner: that is, an acceptance of a certain level of chaos is necessary in order to survive. It’s therefore not hard to see why Gray admires Ballard. In the New Statesman in 1999, for example, he summed up JGB’s career somewhat more perceptively than most recent commentators: ‘Ballard’s achievement is not to have staked out any kind of political position. Rather it is to have communicated a vision of what individual fulfilment might mean in a time of nihilism’.
In 2000, on BBC Radio Four, he interviewed Ballard to promote Super-Cannes and again managed to diagnose the dark heart powering JGB’s work:
Super-Cannes seems to be … about the way that this individual need to … descend into the parts of ourselves that are not fully sane, that even contain a certain element of real madness, that this kind of … individual self-exploration can be co-opted by business, by government, so that types of behaviour and fantasy that in the past were forbidden become almost light entertainment, part of a new industry where we’re fed with brilliant, violent, strange, surreal imagery, but with the goal not of emancipating us, but of keeping us at the job, keeping us working… the liberation that comes with wealth, affluence, freedom of choice can be used as a tool of social control.
More recently, in his book, Black Mass, while not specifically referencing Ballard, Gray formulated a position that could equally apply to the peculiar character of Ballard’s dystopias, in which the characters create meaning from chaos, forging an alliance with the forces of darkness. Black Mass notes how utopian values specifically fuelled by religion and government have created human misery on a massive scale, up to and including the War on Terror. For Gray, what is needed instead is a realist perspective that rejects utopianism and instead accepts the fact that politics is meaningless and that conflict is inherent in human relationships:
A private realm protected from intrusion is part of civilized life, but some incursion into privacy may be unavoidable if other freedoms are to be secure. It is better to accept these conflicts and deal with them than deny them, as liberals do when they look to theories of human rights to resolve dilemmas of war and security.
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