Monday, 9 September 2013

Michel Houllebecq on Posthumanity

I have long avoided reading anything by Michel Houellebecq. Although I had come across Houllebecq’s name occasionally in the context of transhumanism, the nature of what I heard somehow led me to believe that I wouldn’t care very much about his books. Now I’ve finally got around to reading his 2005 novel The Possibility of an Island, which at the time of its publication raised the hackles of many critics (I remember one scathing, astonishingly vitriolic review by Michael Worton in The Guardian). To my surprise, I discovered that I liked the book well enough. I found the story engaging and his analysis of the human condition and his reflections on the transhumanist endeavour to transcend it and to help us evolve into something better and less dependent spot on and actually quite perceptive.
The book is of course deeply immersed in Schopenhauer’s philosophy: life is suffering as long as you have desires, and once you stop desiring you glide into boredom, which is equally unbearable. The series of Daniels from today to the distant future represents the endless cycle of rebirths or rather, to be more precise, our various phenomenal existences that do not allow a real escape from this life of suffering. But there is also the sense – which reminded me of D.H. Lawrence - that all dignity and worth of human existence is inseparably connected to the human body: the body that desires, that longs for a unity with the other that it can never have, or at least never hold on to, the dependent, vulnerable, suffering body, which is also the body that loves and laughs. The very tragedy of our bodily existence is also its one redeeming quality. That is why Stoic indifference and the shallowness of a life that only seeks pleasure and is constitutionally unable to feel anything else is, despite its appeal, in fact not a desirable goal and prospect at all.
When Daniel1, the main narrator and our contemporary, falls in love with Isabelle, the editor-in-chief of a magazine called Lolita, she tells him: “You know the magazine I work for: all we’re trying to do is create an artificial mankind, a frivolous one that will no longer be open to seriousness or to humour, which, until it dies, will engage in an increasingly desperate quest for fun and sex; a generation of definite kids.” So this new artificial mankind, the kind of posthuman that we are already turning into, is not post-human due to some bioenhancement procedure, but due to a change in attitude. They have learnt to look at life differently. Their advancement consists in having lost something essential to humanity: seriousness and humour, none of which can exist without the other.
“The centuries-old male project, perfectly expressed nowadays by pornographic films, that consisted of ridding sexuality of any emotional connotation in order to bring it back into the realm of pure entertainment, had finally, in this generation, been accomplished. (...) They had succeeded, after decades of conditioning and effort, they had finally succeeded in tearing from their hearts one of the oldest human feelings, and now it was done, what had been destroyed could no longer be put back together, no more than the pieces of a broken cup can be reassembled, they had reached their goal: at no moment in their lives would they ever know love. They were free.”
From this perspective, love is a destructive force. It prevents us from enjoying all the pleasure that we could enjoy. It entraps us, binds us to another human being, makes us dependent on them, and wreaks havoc with our emotions. For the sake of individual liberty and autonomy, we should try to control it, suppress it, and, if we can, get rid of it entirely. Love is just as much an obstacle to complete autonomy and the maximisation of pleasure as the ageing of the body. Houllebecq describes an increasingly common fixation, where certain natural impulses reign supreme, unchecked: “It’s understandable that people are afraid of getting old, especially women, that’s always been true, but in this case ... It’s gone beyond anything you could imagine, I think women have gone completely mad.” All taboos have been given up, except one: the taboo of being, or getting, old.
The new religion that, in the novel, gets the ball of posthumanity rolling, Elohimism, is in its goals and general worldview a close relative to real-life transhumanism, and Houllebecq describes quite plausibly how much it owes to the cultural shifts that have already taken place in our time. “As for Elohimism, it was adapted perfectly to the leisure civilisation in which it had been born. Imposing no moral constraints, reducing human existence to categories of interest and of pleasure, it did not hesitate, for all that, to make its own fundamental promise at the core of all monotheistic religions: victory over death. Eradicating any spiritual or confusing dimension, it simply limited the scope of this victory, and the nature of the promise associated with it, to the unlimited prolongation of material life, that is to say the unlimited satisfaction of physical desires.”
The one overarching goal is the elimination of all natural bonds and boundaries, which also means that when the body becomes more disabling than enabling, when it loses the (limited) use that it had as long as we are (relatively) young, it has to be discarded. A member of the church would commit suicide (naturally in anticipation of resurrection) “when he felt that his physical body was no longer in a state to give him the joys he could legitimately expect from it.”
But the determination to get the most out of life, to let nothing hinder the pursuit of happiness, ironically leads to a state where all the fun has drained out of life. One thousand years in the future, Daniel24, Daniel’s autotrophic, but otherwise not radically enhanced clone (directly born into the adult body of an 18-year old) no longer has any strong feelings about anything. The so-called neo-humans don’t laugh or cry. There’s no bodily contact between the few neo-humans who live alone, in “a condition of absolute solitude”, and only communicate with each other rarely and via electronic media, which leaves no room for cruelty or compassion. They aspire to end the “suffering of being that makes us seek out the other” and thus “reach the freedom of indifference, the condition for the possibility of perfect serenity”. His immediate successor, Daniel25 reflects: “Our existence, devoid of passions, had been that of the elderly; we looked on the world with a gaze characterised by lucidity without benevolence.” There are also advantages, of course, but those advantages are those of a well-functioning machine: “Compared with a human, I benefited from a suppleness, endurance and functional autonomy that were greatly enhanced. My psychology, of course, was also different; it did not comprehend fear, and whilst I was able to suffer, I felt none of the dimensions of what human called regret (...). Consciousness of a total determinism was without doubt what differentiated us most clearly from our human predecessors. Like them, we were only conscious machines; but, unlike them, we were aware of only being machines.” The machine works well indeed, but sadly there is no longer a purpose to what it does. The future just repeats the past. It is the past that still lies before us. “I had perhaps sixty years left to live; more than twenty thousand days that would be identical.” The neo-human’s survival, his very existence, has itself become a matter of indifference. “I saw my body as a vehicle, but it was a vehicle for nothing.” Fatalism is linked to immortality (that is, here, the infinite reproduction of one’s genes). The neo-human is only an “improved monkey”.
In that remote future, humanity still exists, side by side with neo-humanity, but has degenerated a long time ago, nobody really knows why. Curiously, though, it all started with the invention of android robots, “equipped with a versatile artificial vagina. A high-tech system analysed in real time the configuration of male sexual organs, arranged temperatures and pressures; a radiometric sensor allowed the prediction of ejaculation, the consequent modification of stimulation, and the prolonging of intercourse for so long as was wished.” That went on for a few weeks, but then sales collapsed, not because people realised that the old ways were ultimately more rewarding, but simply because humanity was finally, as Houllebecq puts it, about to give up the ghost.
And yet, sex is important, in fact essential to a human life worth living, but just as for D.H. Lawrence, there are different kinds of sex, those that connect and those that disconnect, those that are basically a form of masturbation where the partner functions as a mere tool to generate sexual pleasure, and those that seek a kind of communion, which again is essentially a communion of bodies, not of detached minds. Thus David1 reflects: “Sexual pleasure was not only superior, in refinement and violence, to all the other pleasures life had to offer, (...) it was in truth the sole pleasure, the sole objective of human existence, and all other pleasures (...) were only derisory and desperate compensations”. “When sexuality disappears, it’s the body of the other that appears, as a vaguely hostile presence; the sounds, movements and smells; even the presence of this body that you can no longer touch, nor sanctify through touch, becomes gradually oppressive; all this, unfortunately, is well known. The disappearance of tenderness always closely follows that of eroticism. There is no refined relationship, no higher union of souls, nor anything that might resemble it, or even evoke it allusively. When physical love disappears; a dreary, depthless irritation fills the passing days.”
The reason for this irritation is that without the communion of the bodies, the mental communion is also lost, and one finds oneself alone: “it seemed unsurprising to me that the exchange of ideas with someone who doesn’t know your body, is not in a position to secure its unhappiness or on the other hand to bring it joy, was a false and ultimately impossible exercise, for we are bodies, we are, above all, principally and almost uniquely bodies, and the state of our bodies constitutes the true explanation of the majority of our intellectual and moral conceptions.”
We truly live only through our sexual bodies: “When the sexual instinct is dead, writes Schopenhauer, the true core of life is consumed; thus, he notes in a metaphor of terrifying violence, ‘human existence resembles a theatre performance which, begun by living actors, is ended by automatons dressed in the same costumes’. I didn’t want to become an automaton, and it was this, that real presence, that taste for living life (...) that Esther had given back to me. What is the point of maintaining a body that no one touches?” What is indeed!
Real love is physical love, love of the body and through the body. Real love is also, for beings such as us, possessive, because “non-possessive love only seemed conceivable if you yourself lived in an atmosphere saturated with delights, from which all fear was absent, particularly fear of abandonment and death”.
Yes paradoxically it is also fear that often ends our love: “It’s not weariness that puts an end to love, or rather it’s a weariness that is born of impatience, of the impatience of bodies who know they are condemned and want to live, who want, in the lapse of time granted them, to not pass up any chance, to miss no possibility, who want to use to the utmost that limited, declining and mediocre lifetime that is theirs, and who consequently cannot love anyone, as all others appear limited, declining and mediocre to them.”

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