The nine nights of the enlightenment
John Gray’s 1995 Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and culture at the close of the modern age is a benchmark exposition of the contemporary socio-political human condition. It is yet to be surpassed.
More than any other single piece of work, its confrontations with the prevailing assumptions underpinning the liberal sensibility remain as un-assailed by rebuttal as they are unacknowledged by most of what remains ostensibly liberal discourse in politics and philosophy to this day. After causing some initial waves,1 answering Gray’s withering challenge has evidently been deemed an ignorable chore by much of the liberal opinion-forming classes whether in academia, government, the arts, or elsewhere. Some bodies, it seems, are just not worth the trouble of exhuming. Instead, a zombified liberalism walks the isles of legislative bodies in much of the western polity – un-harassed by any serious intellectual challenge from within – while the populous outside has largely ceased to press its representatives with any such concerns. When the increasingly anxious majority hurls projectiles at the status quo in Western countries, they do so with unguided munitions, as the ‘Occupy’ movements of 2010-2012 demonstrated.
The Enlightenment and many of its most foundational assumptions are interred six feet underground – but few have seemed to notice what that means for the present and future of liberal democracy and even fewer believe they have reason to care.2 Whether Gray intended the double-use of ‘wake’ – to denote that something has passed in time as well as to denote the vigil, viewing, or social part of a funeral ceremony – I’m not sure. Gray’s examination of the Enlightenment, in this and much of his subsequent published work, could certainly be described as open-casket. Either way, it’s with the funeral theme that this article continues. It first reiterates what Gray presented as the chief challenge to the liberal tradition, which is detailed in the closing pages of Enlightenment’s Wake. It expands on what that challenge meant for the polities of the West as it confronted the collapse of the liberal project in the context of the digital age, and uses Gray’s post-1995 work to illuminate where it, and he, has come in the 25-year interregnum. We revisit the ‘wager’ Gray knew he was describing, and examine the perturbations of denial which have ensued on the back of a trifecta of mutations only now coming to light.
Continuing with the funeral theme, the ‘Nine Nights’ are a Caribbean tradition in which the dead are no longer mourned but celebrated after a funeral. The deceased, in Gray’s thesis, is the condition contemporary Western political culture found itself in at the end of the Cold War. He argued in Enlightenment’s Wake that neither a progressive nor a conservative version of the liberal project is feasible in the early 21st century – a project whose trajectory has terminated in nihilism and a set of self-undermining paradoxes. Enlightenment’s Wake’s final chapter implores post-liberal Occidental cultures to cease mourning the passing of the modern age and to open outwards to ‘releasement’3 – the mode of ‘Being’ prefigured in Heidegger’s flawed but indicative concept of Gelassenheit – as a response to the encroaching technological nihilism Gray identifies as the core feature of the Western condition after modernity.
Releasement describes a type of cognitive refactoring, where we would ‘wean ourselves from willing and open ourselves to letting things be’4. It’s a process, twenty-five years on, that has scarcely begun but that we, the social and political detritus that is the public culture of Western society, have not begun. In a sense the nine nights of Enlightenment are unfolding – regardless of what humans do, think, or say – a pointer to much of Gray’s subsequent work which orbits his central attack on humanism. Referencing Heidegger, Gray thought the possibilities of recovering Western modernity from the pit of nihilism amounted to little more than a wager – one in which nothing less than the fate of the people of the West was staked.
At the same time, the outright denial of modernity’s mortality is a powerful thread in contemporary culture, nowhere more so than in that culture of information technologies born in San Francisco and exported across the globe, as Gray foresaw with some dread.5 As the political culture of the West, over the quarter century ensuing, has denied Enlightenment’s Wake and thus forestalled the nine nights, it has instead fidgeted while the technologies of nihilism have been deployed and scaled. Under cover of the ‘shock doctrine’ of disaster capitalism, as espoused by Naomi Klein, and via the insidious methods of ‘limbic capitalism’ highlighted by David Courtwright, denial of modernity’s failings has been most clearly expressed by the absurdity that market fundamentalism was given a new lease on life – even as its failure became most evident – by the return of social engineering, repackaged and renamed for the digital information age and best described to date by Shoshana Zuboff.6 This trifecta of mutations now locked-in, they present the people and culture of the West with a fait accompli they are only beginning to cognize. This fait accompli is the devastating answer to Gray’s wager.
I take up this review at this time, a quarter-century since Enlightenment’s Wake was first published, in the otherworldly guises of mortician and navigator. In 1995 the World Wide Web was nascent. The two decades intervening delivered digital connectivity via mobile portable devices, ubiquitous internet access, and an economic model based on platforms designed exclusively to harvest human attention and sell the data it generates as a highly fungible resource, to every corner of the globe. The implications of this delivery are the subject of a growing corpus of scholarship,7 literature,8 and commentary,9 much of which grapples with the social, political, economic, and existential consequences.
When this corpus is read with an eye on Gray’s work, however, we can connect what can often seem a bewildering era of rapid changes with a more enduring understanding of the forces at play. The context of this understanding comes from Gray’s diagnosis of the conditions of modernity’s passing and the possibilities of response he outlines. We find a mixed bag of happenings, strewn mostly as accidents and side-effects, bridging the interregnum. The social and political institutions whose legacies remain those of the Enlightenment strain, buckle, and fail in the face of technologically mediated nihilism marketed as ‘disruption’. But the usurping of institutional power and legitimacy on these fronts is a symptom, in the first instance, of the incapacity and unwillingness of Western societies to cope with and resist the nihilism which now goes almost undetected under the crushing weight of technological domination, and the exploitation of this failing by market ideologues working their policies through US-led international institutions under cover of perpetual crises. In short, modernity’s passing was complete before the digital information age and all of its assembled parts were deployed at scale. Their deployment has only locked-in and in many cases automated its implications, shielding them from public view in the process by way of the inscrutable techno-babble and mindless innovation-speak which remains opaque to the very polities and publics whose lives its objects and actants now mediate.
While we grapple for a foothold in the digital age, its easy to not notice that the conditions in which it was deployed were prefabricated by the existential collapse of modernity and the failure, as it is now clear, to voluntarily acknowledge the fact. Releasement is still possible. In fact, as it is partially an autonomous occurrence in the world, it is more conceivable than ever. Now, however, it is playing out in the context of the implications of the export of Western technological nihilism to the non-Occidental world – most significantly to China – where it has entered and been transformed by an unrecognizable cultural milieu. The stakes of releasement for Western culture are now entangled, and in some ways confused, with a strategic showdown. The narrative of strategic threat now clouds any sense of clarity with a climate of rising fear. The stakes are, in fact, better understood first in the context of Western denial and its exploitation by failed ideologues.
As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, China is several decades into its own contingent version of modernity, which took its most dramatic divergence from anything resembling a Western model after the death of Mao in 1976. In borrowing so heavily from Marx and Lenin, Maoism was still a distinctively Western project. Its de facto rejection by China’s elites, which began well before 1976, signaled the last time the Chinese polity would follow a Western model to modernization. At the same time, much of the Occidental world is in the painful process of discovering its own ‘non-modern’ condition, as Latour described it10 – a condition made intelligible not by reference to modernity, as with post-modernism, but by retracing the steps which led us to assume we were modern in the first place.11 Again, we find a foundational vacuum. These assumptions have been swept aside by the very forces modernity was so successful at unleashing: the advance of science and technology. The tide of technology now coarsens the bedrock of Western societies left exposed by the retreat of the public sphere. Further coarsening lights a beacon to barbarism.
As China encounters its own uncertain 21st century modernity, infused as it is with all the recapitulated products of the Occidental obsession with technological vanguardism recast through the prism of an alien Chinese metaphysics, the West is itself being shaken loose by modernity. The failure to acknowledge and to voluntarily begin the cultural refactoring flagged by Gray at the end of Enlightenment’s Wake has resulted in the reactionary tightening of grips – perhaps a grasping at straws – by the Occidental cultures in which the tenets of modernity and its attending political projects have reached their terminus. Recast in its strategic context, this process represents a combination of slow death-by-denial and a faster form of social suicide. Strategic revitalization for Western culture is an imperative now stifled, and perhaps made inconceivable, by its refusal to entertain the nine nights of Enlightenment. Instead, the 21st century is shaping as a contest in which cultures will compete to survive historically untrodden extremes of technological nihilism – extremes the West is not well-placed to endure let-alone benefit from.
Gray advocates a turning outward from the human mind. A release not only of expectations about the ultimate ends of knowledge which manifest in metaphysical materialism, but of the very ways of thinking that put human knowledge at the fundament of things which Gray locates at the core of the Western tradition. Against the logocentrism of the Greek philosophes, the universalist teleology of the monotheists, and the secular scientism of the Enlightenment, Gray shows that mind cannot be the measure of the world – the human mind finds an open horizon and a space in which to live only in turning away from the human world. A window out of the human world is indispensable for human sanity because the human world accommodates an intractably hostile oscillation between doubt and certainty. Not only that, whole vistas of unknowable worlds open up as the human animal re-finds a home in the world beyond itself – the key to any possibility of renewal. A heuristic of looking outward – a centrifugal epistemology – could be a fruitful path for humans reared on these extinguished Western faiths – though not before a painful and possibly unachievable existential reckoning.
Looking outward, humans can expect only glimpses – flashes and impressions of a world falling away – never solid and repeatable. Never secure and certain. Once as common as tooth-ache, this cognitive capacity to cope with incompleteness has been lost to the modern world. The chief weakness of the Western mind is to be found in its desperation for monisms – whether secular or religious makes little difference. The desperation for monisms is a way of thinking – not an item of thought. Confronted as they are with a world ever-more cluttered by the objects of technology, which, contrary to the utopias of techno-futurists, succeed only in further entangling humans in myopic visions of themselves, a shrinking of horizons, and perhaps a catastrophic inward spiral, awaits Western culture on its current trajectory. Enlightenment’s Wake ends with this quite devastating appraisal.
A good portion of Gray’s work published since 1995 can be read as an attempt to answer this state of affairs – the imperative to escape the self-annihilating will-to-power manifest in the modern religion of progress – laid out in the final chapter of Enlightenment’s Wake. How then to live? 2003’s Straw Dogs is the first comprehensive expression of what Gray had in mind. ‘In this book I have tried to present a view of things in which humans are not central,’ Gray writes in the acknowledgements. Reaching its poetic height in 2013’s The Silence of Animals, Gray, never more than hinting at what a non-anthropocentric world-view would be like, showcases his conception in imagist poetry, a love of nature which harbors a metaphysical playfulness, and, contrary to many ill-informed critics, a deep and abiding compassion for the flawed human animal. In various ways describable with reference to thought traditions in Nominalism, Perspectivism, Imagism, and Animism, Gray’s journey outward is through a strident yet never misanthropic anti-humanism. At the core of Gray’s anti-humanism is a need to remove the human mind from the center of things – in order, one observes, not to preserve it, but to relieve it of the most stupid and self-defeating forms of suffering and destructiveness. His stance is summed up beautifully in the closing lines of Silence of Animals, ‘There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.’12 Critics who see Gray as misanthropic have totally misread him.
As have those who decry his work for an absence of solutions. What hubris has ensued so that people have come to expect solutions? This is precisely the exertion of humanist willfulness which requires tempering. Gray states clearly in Enlightenment’s Wake the confrontation the West faces with the dire prospects for renewal.
The alteration in traditional conceptions of ethics and science, and indeed of thought, which comes with the abandonment of the central Western tradition of which the Enlightenment is the culmination and nihilism the result, may prove to be beyond the powers of Western cultures to absorb. 13John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake, 274
Refusing to offer the desperate reader a placebo, he writes instead with reference to Heidegger’s concept of ‘the gamble’ – human contingency is itself a type of gamble. Nothing, even survival, has ever been assured the human animal. A willingness to accept that human life is intractably contingent and mortal is at the core of releasement and, Gray is saying, the key to renewing the human settlement with its home. It is nothing if not an entreaty to humans to accept what they are. ‘… as in any wager, the upshot is not decidable by us, even though it is our very beings that are at stake.’14
Readers of Gray’s academic work will know that Enlightenment’s Wake marks the end of his conventional engagement with contemporary political philosophy and theory. The book’s earlier chapters summarize his previous attempts to formulate a coherent response to the collapse of Western modernity, by preserving elements of liberal and conservative political tradition. The terminus of Gray’s own engagement reflects not only the brutal confrontation with the reality of these moribund legacies but also the truthful fruit of that confrontation. Gray sees in this terminus the truth about the modern condition – not a failure of political thought or practice but an inflection point in human history and its relations with the Earth. The wager is no cop-out. Gray is stepping away because he is no longer a political philosopher, and sees little of interest left in the guise of political theory. It is a marker in space and time of the fate of the human animal as a contingent, mortal, and situated life-form like every other. A quarter century since he wrote the following, the terms of the wager have only deepened as, predictably, all manner of denial and delay has been deployed to forestall the reckoning. Our 2020 vantage point renders the wager an even clearer marker of the current inflection in Western civilization.
…the calculative and representational mode of thinking which philosophy has privileged in modern times is now so hegemonic that the cultural space is lacking in which an alternative mode of thinking might occur. The present inquiry embodies the wager that another mode of thinking – found in some varieties of poetry and mysticism, for example – can assert itself against the domination of the forms of thought that the prospect of cultural recovery – if there is such a prospect – lies. Only if the ground of Western culture can renew itself through such modes of thought can any practical measures have lasting effect. The wager which this inquiry embodies, like that of the later Heidegger, at least in some of its aspects, turns on the chance that the power of calculative thought in contemporary Western culture is not irresistible. If, however, the wager proves to be a losing gamble, then the future for the Western cultures will be one of further hollowing out into nihilism, with eventual dissolution – or, worse, replication throughout the world as instruments of technological nihilism – being their fate. 15Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake, 275
For the twenty-five years since Enlightenment’s Wake, John Gray has employed his knowledge of European history, politics, and culture in the service of an offering. The offering of the nine nights. Against the hegemonic forms of thought which once propelled modernity now pulling it into technological nihilism, and for the preparing of new grounds and modes of thought in which renewal could be possible. Outside a hardcore following, his work has proven unpalatable if not inconceivable to the political opinion forming classes of the Western polity. In the interim the debris of modernity’s collapse in the West has been instrumentalised by a cohort of radical humanists with the institutional capacity to exploit the disrupted vacuum, accelerating the descent into nihilism and hastening the West’s dissolution. It has been ignored by the distracted rest. The opening of any cultural space for alternative modes of thought, perhaps glimpsed in the early digital age, was quickly closed off in the frenzy to commandeer the digital medium to the end of human exploitation and control which arose with renewed vigor after 9/11. The nine nights never commenced.
John Gray’s 1995 Enlightenment’s Wake: Politics and culture at the close of the modern age is a b...