The genomic imperative: Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island.
"The Genomic Imperative" focuses on French writer Michel Houellebecq's 2005 dystopia The Possibility of an Island (La possibilite d'une ile). In its introduction, the essay links Houellebecq's work to the recent tradition of postmodern fiction (on the one hand) and to modern philosophies of the "human" (on the other). The introduction is followed by an analysis of the cultural-existential predicament of Houellebecq's "neohuman" world with particular emphasis on the cloning theme. "Neohumanism," I argue, rests on a radical abolition of difference. Identity is eminently serial in a disenchanted "society" where "the freedom of indifference" is the ultimate ideal. Notably, indifference is not just a matter of psychology, an attitude toward others. It also speaks to a dedifferentiated world that smudges the vital demarcations between self and other, private and public, interior and exterior, and culture and nature.
1. Particules and Particulars: The Postmodern Connection
"Everybody is everywhere at once," proclaims a character in Don DeLillo's 1997 meganovel Underworld (805). Michel Houellebecq's 2005 dystopia La possibilite d'une ile carries this pronouncement to a dystopian extreme. Here everybody is everywhere because, no matter where people are, everybody is like everybody else. Ubiquity inheres in sameness within an all-of-a-piece time-space, the sole dimension of being. This post-historical quagmire can be traced to the mass-produced iterative fantasies haunting DeLillo's Underwarm and the more recent Cosmapolis (2003), but also to the highly controversial titles Houellebecq himself published between 1994 and 2001, chiefly Extension du domaine de la lutte (Whatever), Les particules elementaires (The Elementary Particles), and Platforme (Platform). These have made him possibly "the most famous French novelist since Camus" or, as Julian Barnes writes in The New Yorker, "the most potentially weighty French novelist to emerge since Tournier," but comparisons with British and American authors such as Martin Amis, Pynchon, Powers, Gibson, Sterling, and DeLillo himself are also de rigueur. (1)
To be sure, Houellebecq is a global figure. He has drawn constantly from a range of cultures and literary traditions, has built a reputation stretching far beyond France, and his latest--2005--book came out in its original language and in the English translation virtually at the same time. More significantly still, not only does The Possibility of an Island tackle the conundrums of globalization from angles eerily recalling DeLillo, but what critics have said about the latter and Thomas Pynchon can also be applied to Houellebecq's indirect conversation with DeLillo. Typical of all three is, as Timothy L. Parrish has suggested, the relentless engagement "with the interconnected systems of meaning-making that define" our time (79). But, where Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day sketch out the "shift from a human-centered world to a technology-driven one," DeLillo's White Noise, Mao II, Underworld, and Cosmopolis "imagin[e] more exactly what happens once that shift has occurred", while Houellebecq amplifies and extends its hazardous upshots far into the future (Parrish 80). (2) Conceivably, these are three, interrelated chapters in the same revisionist narrative, for they all rewrite history by cross-referencing one another: Pynchon revisits past centuries to work out an alternate genealogy of the present; also in search of neglected history, DeLillo digs into this present's landfill across his oeuvre and primarily in Underworld; and Houellebecq pictures a world yet to come from whose height the late twentieth century looks like its prehistory, the time when everything "went wrong." So the French writer's is the last installment in a fairly circular sequence where the closing chapter retells the one in the middle, which in turn bears out the Paradigmwechsel apprehensions of the opening. Likewise, Pynchon's postmodern retrospect focuses on what predates postmodernism; DeLillo details how things stand in postmodern times and contemplates a move across rather than beyond the postmodern; at last, in Houellebecq, the move has been long completed, but the postmodern and its aftermath, like the human itself, are not simply its past (and in the past), but a sort of future anterior, a "possibility" or "shift" that "will have happened" and so it may happen again.
Should it occur, the change would reverse the processes DeLillo charts in recent fiction and essays. But Houellebecq remains fairly evasive about the mechanics of this turnaround. He spends the bulk of The Elementary Particles and The Possibility of an Island on taking stock of the environmental and cultural crisis described by DeLillo and then upgrading it hyperbolically to global proportions. For, in the 2005 novel the earth is a wasteland except for a few areas. Nor is waste--cities in ruins, entire countries turned into deserts--an "open book" worth browsing through any more. A flipside of his urge to acquire unique objects, the "recursive" fetish of Eric, the protagonist of Cosmopolis, becomes in The Possibility of an Island what it has always been, namely a highly formalized, computer-generated self-cloning fixation displaced onto the whole planet. Already in Underworld, the apparent almightiness of the digital--the dark power of "soft" microsystems, "zeroes," "ones," and "pixels" to replicate themselves across the "real" world and thus "integrate" us all into the trajectories of representation and desire crisscrossing within the same macrosystem of sameness--was setting itself up as a premise of life worldwide (825). Such circuits and routes, still in DeLillo's 1997 book, were already bypassing time and space, first in cyberspace, then in "actual" space: "There is no space or time out here, or in here, or wherever [Sister Edgar] is. There are only connections" inside and thereafter outside--and this connectedness is why there is no outside any more (825). "Hyperlinking" cancels time, space, and, along with them, "cultural nuance" (825). This hyperlinking happens, DeLillo discloses, because the digital is inherently viral, self-reproductive, and therefore un-ethical, repeating itself into co-present selfsameness, writing itself across others and rewriting them, their places, and histories into oneness. However, the digital is the model, the generative matrix of the technology and the technology-driven culture coming about in the last decades of the twentieth century. "Not technically sound but"--a most telling "but"--able to "mix in whole cultures and geographies and cross-references," Underworld's Lenny Bruce cuts to the heart of atemporalizing and despatializing media and mass-culture when he calls the force behind them the "technology ... of instant and quick" (544-545). Through it, images--certain images--are rerun endlessly "to the ends of the earth" or "until everyone on the planet ha[s] seen [them]," and then all over again until they "press time" and space "flat" (232-233). The pixels, the zeroes and the ones, the germs, viruses, and alpha particles make up infinitesimal codes that reencode world cultures as one continuum whose segments' physical co-presence bespeaks the deeper identity of those so present: an identity--more exactly, an identicalness--of essence and thus the essence of instantaneousness itself, of the instant as the time and space of repetition.
Cosmopolis wrestles with the suspicion that bodies and computers do not measure the same time. Still human, Eric's body gives the lie to "theory" and its self-replicant drives. Lopsided, his body cannot be boiled down to symmetries, is not formalizable into a code, into a reproducible particle structure; the body remains particular because its "particles" have not been identified. In The Elementary Particles, the opposite is the case: once one's DNA has been figured out, it can be used, as Houellebecq writes in his novel's Prologue, to effectuate another "paradigm shift" and so "open up a new era in world history" (4). The "new era" or "world order" carries out, also like in DeLillo," a "global positioning" or ordering--and ordering around--of time, space, and people. This order weaves all bodies together in a "web of joy" that replaces the "old order"'s "web of suffering" (5).
The body is keynote here as it is in DeLillo. A notion to which Houellebecq comes back in The Possibility of an Island, pain springs from "division" (The Elementary Particles 6), and this inheres in distinct individuals and cultures, in difference. The latter, the argument goes, both calls for and makes impossible relationships across divides. As does Cosmopolis, Platform and, especially, Whatever insist on the obsolescence, impossibility, and implied undesirability of human ties and bonds in the hyperconnected world that values "relation" as information exchange (Whatever 14, 41). Sexuality, the only dimension in which our bodies still need and seek out relationships, remains something to contend with, nudging us toward each other (99), but this can be fixed either by sex tourism in the pre-dystopian universe of Platform or by molecular biology in the future society of The Elementary Particles. If hyperlinking equals the body of the world with "the sum of the information we have about it" (222)--data that can be organized and reproduced as code--DNA research does the same to the world of the body. A "driving force" of history, sexual reproduction becomes "useless" if not "regressive" once the genome has been "decoded" (219-220) and used to level the sexual playing field so that each body, equivalent as it would be to every body, would equally attract, enjoy, and provide enjoyment to other bodies. Redefining the human as reproducible information, this genetically egalitarian utopia of sorts pries apart reproduction from intercourse while reinforcing the latter as nonreproductive jouissance and ultimate source of happiness. Yet the bigger point here, indirectly raised in Underworld as much as in The Elementary Particle's Epilogue, is that genomic, rather than genetic, reproduction means "infinit[e] cop[ying]" (259) of the code itself, not necessarily of the human, which inheres in the differential dynamic of self and other. For, what the code does as it writes itself is it writes out sexual difference, difference in general--and with it both the possibility and necessity of relatedness--and thus the human itself. "One of the principal objections to [Hubczejak's project]," which carries Djerzinski's work into the twenty-first century, concerned, we learn, "the suppression of sexual difference, which is central to human identity. To this Hubczejak responded that his intention was not to re-create the human species down to the smallest detail, but to create a new, rational species" (260). Speaking to "the global ridicule in which the works of Foucault, Lacan, Derrida ... Deleuze" and other philosophers of difference had suddenly "foundered after decades of inane reverence," the de-differentiating reproduction of the human code sets the stage for the more advanced "neohumanism" of The Possibility of an Island (262).
2. The Ontology of States
In the 2005 book, "neohumans" have given up community by doing away with the underlying concept of relation, of being-with (the Heideggerian Mitsein) as a pivotal premise of being. Furthermore, the devaluation of relatedness at some point in the early third millennium sets off a no-holds-barred revaluing of all values under the ever-ambiguous aegis of Nietzsche's Umwertung aller Werte and the Zarathustrian overcoming of the "human." In fact, alongside the cloning controversy, the exalted rhetoric of Internet-based interface, and intertextual elements such as the New Testament, Buddhism, Auguste Comte's mystical humanism (also insistently evoked in the 1998 novel), H. P. Lovecraft (to whom Houellebecq has devoted an entire book), Nabokov's eerily haunting Lolita, modern dystopian tradition (with Huxley's Brave New World less abundantly referenced than in The Elementary Particles), and Nietzsche saturate The Possibility of an Island at all narrative levels. Among these levels, two matter most: one at which a character named Daniel1 tells his life story, which covers roughly our time, and another, where Daniel24 and 25 (Daniel1's clones) comment on this story circa two thousand years thereafter. Our contemporary more or less, Daniel1 is human; his clones are "neohuman." The division is not absolute, though. A standup comedian--a Lenny Bruce of the World Wide Web era--Daniel1 sees himself as "a sort of Zarathustra of the middle classes" (Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island 286). "A typical human being, representative of the species, a human being among so many others," he is a sarcastic observer of humanity and disaffected herald of the human's neohuman morphing under the sweep of a new, genetic research-driven faith whose doctrine would be fully formulated by the Supreme Sister (another allusion to Comte) (260).
The doctrine is anti-relational or, post-relational through and through. The Elementary Particles already proclaimed the "ontological overhaul" that shifted the emphasis away from an "ontology" of structurally discrete "objects" to an "ontology of states" grounded in objects' molecular similitude (249). The latter was expected to "restor[e] the practical possibility of human relationships" (249), but, far from providing a remedy to violent "individuation" and the ensuing "atomization society" (128-129), commonality of structure fails to "giv[e] new meaning to fraternity, sympathy and love" (249). This commonality is how people trade the "illusion" of the self for the genetically engineered delusion of intersubjectivity. The Supreme Sister acknowledges the impasse and, in response, promotes "the idea of detachment" (The Possibility of an Island, 317)--detachment as dis-attachment, to be more precise. Counterintuitive as it may seem, neohumanism thrives on isolation and, derived from it, stasis, extreme "conservatism" (287). "Change" was a defining value and feature of the human, deeming the latter, according to "the human thinker Friedrich Nietzsche, ... 'the species whose type is not yet fixed'" (287). But what makes and stabilizes humans anthropologically as a "type" also unmakes them, grants their class a fluidity that warrants further change. The change is complete--no longer occurs and so stops being a "value"--once the type is uniformly reproduced in all members of the species, that is, once all individuals replicate a prototype with minimal and ultimately irrelevant allotropisms. It is only then that "people" conform to the Spinozist conatus essendi and so they "persever[e] in [their] being" ) as recommended by the Supreme Sister. Thus, they are all the same in a world that has abolished difference, rid itself of others. If all others who have been left are "individuals" like itself, then the self is by itself even when it is with them, and cannot be otherwise given its serial identity; the self is alone in this narcissistic, tautological space. No matter where it turns, it runs into copies of itself. Here, being with oneself is the only existential and cultural game in town, the sole recipe of being; being with others proves both futile and pointless. A neohumanist keystone, asociality has turned into ultimate value, worldview, and (a)social engineering method all in one--and all of them flowing, as the Supreme Sister teaches, from absolute oneness, in a categorical isolation subsumed beneath a quasi-hedonistic ideal of life. According to her, Daniel25, 11 expounds, "jealousy, desire, and the appetite for procreation share the same origin, which is the suffering of being. It is the suffering of being [la souffrance d'etre] that makes us seek out the other, as a palliative; we must go beyond this stage to reach the state where the simple fact of being constitutes in itself a permanent occasion for joy; where intermediation is nothing more than a game, freely undertaken, and not constitutive of being. We must, in a word, reach the freedom of indifference, the condition for the possibility of perfect serenity" (260).
A prerequisite of serenity or ataraxia, "indifference" is the vehicle of an over-the-top Epicureanism predicated on aponia, absence of pain. As in Epicurus, this absence or, rather, suppression has to do with the body or, more to the point, with how our human bodies draw us to others and more generally into the world, force us to interact with it and variously take it in as food, environment, or place inhabited by other beings and things. It is our bodies that determine being as being-with, and--through, other beings and thus "sentence" us to a life of dependence on others, that is, to what Daniel1 calls "intermediation." In his efforts to make the new humans self-sustaining, neohumanism brings this dependency routine to an end by canceling out the ontologically "constitutive" nature of the other and more broadly the world's otherness. "Indifference," therefore, is not just a symptom of solipsistic psychology, an attitude toward other people, places, habits, and whatever else might fall outside the neohuman ego. It also speaks to a dedifferentiated world that smudges the vital demarcations between--hence co-dependence of--self and other, private and public, interior and exterior, egological and ecological, culture and nature, body and what nurtures it from the outside. Here, the Sartrian dictum on "others" which Zadie Smith's On Beauty character Monty Kipps enjoys quoting also applies to the world, for it is the world that is "hellish," not those others; moreover, it is the others' very absence, the generalizing or worming (Weltung) of an "allergic" state of being that makes this world infernal.
Coextensive with this ontology is Houellebecq's moral-political stance. Interestingly, what informatics does to Kantian ethics in Cosmopolis genetics does in The Elementary Particles. For, "egalitarian"--equalizing, alike-rendering--DNA decoding bills itself as the truly "pure," "universal morality," the only "transcendent ethic[s]" (28-29) as it claims to be capable of solving the "ethical problems" (59) posed by humanity's mortal condition. "Scientific" cynicism? To some, Houellebecq does come off as being as cynical as his alter ego, Daniel1, whose greatest success as a scriptwriter was a movie titled, quite apropos, Diogenes the Cynic (37). I hasten to point out, though, that in "overdoing" the fashionable "putting to death of morality" across a range of social contexts and practices, Daniel1 was no less aware that this kind of "sacrifice" was part and parcel of a "ritual ... necessary for the reassertion of the dominant values of the group." "Centered for some decades now on competition, innovation, and energy, more than on fidelity and duty," this axiological setup was "perfectly suited" to a "developed economy" and, deeper than that, to the "perpetual celebration of the will and the ego" (36). This idea strikes me as an Ideologiekritik of sorts that cuts to the heart of the egocentrism of Daniel1's society. Houellebecq's/Daniel1's "cynicism" is then a more complicated affair that, exactly like Diogenes of Sinope's anti-sectarian ethics, on the one hand queries the particular mores endorsed--and limited--by specific traditions, places, and institutions (such as the State) while on the other it argues for the moral freedom that comes with an explicitly cosmopolitan redefinition of the moral subject. Also as with the great Cynic, this freedom is not without a sense of responsibility to those "others"--people as well as places--with whom and which this subject makes up a cosmos beyond the family, the neighborhood, and the State.
What Houellebecq seems to hint at is that this cosmos, this "one-world," is arising in the global age not by acknowledging those others but at their expense. This is how his ethics and politics of alterity take shape: via an indirect plea on behalf of the human seized as cultural "mediation," as yearning for a being-with kind of life that survives all ecological and political cataclysms. To flesh out his argument, Houellebecq recycles the Sociological and cosmological homologies of classical cosmopolitanism and thus shows that the cultural-anthropological and environmental disasters happened in parallel because they are one, that is, because whatever processes the neohuman inferno has witnessed sociologically, it has also undergone them ecologically, and vice versa. In other words, subject to change, mankind is the being-at-risk per se, unable to think its "situation" through and tackle the globalization of risks under way toward the end of the second millennium. The ebb of the human, of that being that "is" with an other, accompanies the vanishing of the world "as we know it"--the world where to be means to be in relation. Time and again, the French writer spreads out the depressing canvas of a planet devastated by nuclear wars, ecological calamities, and climatic change. Daniel1's Earth was, like its inhabitants, at risk--and neither quite coped. The ecological disaster allegorizes the disappearance of the other insofar as the world of humans was a geography of "intermediation," "other people"'s home; the environmental catastrophe was also a hecatomb of the other. The nature's "withdrawal," its "voiding" as desert or wasteland visited by cataclysmic droughts and nuclear fallout paralleled and bore witness to the other's absence and, with it, to the extinction of the humanity as a culture of togetherness. Coextensive and codependent, the relational makeup of humanness and the correlative structure of the world (Welt in German) as life-sustaining environment (Umwelt) could hardly last one without the other.
3. Una cosa individuale
Drained of any "human contact," the "world" is already fading away for Daniel1, 25; it empties out and becomes "terrorizing" space (296). The all-too-human "terror of space" marks, though, only the last "stage" of a regressive process tormenting the body (296). The latter is, fundamentally, a hedonistic tool. But because hedone is here understood as physical voluptas, the body as pleasure tool and source is dependable for a limited time. Absolute value and, like in Nietzsche, "horizon" of all other values (Launay 1398), the body wears down with age, turns into a liability and, increasingly, a source of pain as it scrambles to play a role for which biologically it is no longer suited. For this reason, the pursuit of happiness as physical pleasure sooner or later makes the pursuer suffer, turning the ideal of aponia on its head--unless, as Socrates hints in Plato's Philebus, both are one and the same from the get-go. No wonder then, if being equals suffering, it does so, as Daniel25 muses in his "final commentary," to no small degree due to Plato's own philosophy of being-as-togetherness.
Couched in the Symposium's famous androgyny myth, this philosophy cast a powerful spell on humans throughout their civilization and now, in the book's Epilogue, also sanctions this civilization's demise as the hero symbolically runs across several chunks of Plato's work on a tattered strip of paper another neohuman, Marie23, left behind in a metal tube. "It was this book," he reflects," that "had intoxicated Western mankind.... Christianity itself, St. Paul himself had been unable to resist bowing before this force. 'The two will become one flesh; this mystery is great, I proclaim it, in relation to Christ and the Church.' Right up until the last human life stories, one could detect an incurable nostalgia for it" (332). The Elementary Particles also quotes Saint Paul on happiness as allegorical "one-flesh" becoming (143) only to debunk the Christian ideal not long thereafter by letting us know how "trapped in individual consciousness and separate flesh" Christiane and Bruno are (167). Michel, Bruno's twin brother, has a similar revelation in Annabelle's arms where, counterintuitive as it may strike us, he dreams of "a mental aggregate of space and its opposite. He saw the mental conflict through which space was structured, and saw it disappear. He saw a space as a thin line separating two spheres. In the first sphere there was being and separation, and in the second was nonbeing and the destruction of the individual." Then, "without a moment's hesitation, he turned and walked toward the second sphere" (194). This is an oneiric move but also the move Michel makes as a scientist, for he attempts in vitro what Saint Paul tried to do in church. Whether microbiological or ecumenical, both types of cosmopolitanism entailed, in principle at least, a search for the other. More exactly, they recognized the existence of an other and the "space" separating it from the self as a problem to "solve," as an "objectual" ontology to overcome. For, carnally as the primordial unity may have been "consummated," in neither was sexual gratification an end, a fulfillment of love proper. True love may start out with desire for the other's body yet it "transcends" the material object of desire and thus asserts itself as a longing ("nostalgia") of a spiritual order, as a metaphysical no less than ethical and religious aspiration to be or once again be one with, and into, a higher entity. In turn, Daniel25 contends that this was precisely the wrong conjecture of which utopian thinkers such as Plato, Saint Paul, Huxley--and after them entire humanity--were guilty. Tied into this fallacy was the trans- or postsomatic character of the culture humans fostered in their attempt to "get over" the body in philosophy, the arts, social arrangements, and so forth.
Written off by classical idealism and its heir, modern rationalism, which swept aside biological positivism and went on to proclaim the absolute freedom of the human through every liberal discourse imaginable, the body remained nonetheless painfully present in human life, and its preordained decay ended up giving the lie to this deceivingly emancipatory rhetoric. Neither modernity's Cartesian liberalism, which predicated being and freedom on a disembodied cogito, nor postmodernity's anti-Cartesian, radically liberal revaluing of the body in matters of identity, culture, and politics was able either to expunge physicality thoroughly or build on it unassailably. Impossible to discount yet only briefly dependable, the body was sooner or later bound to betray people and their anti- or pro-corporeal elaborations no matter how empowering these had sounded initially. As a consequence, the post-1960s somatic revivalism and the cultural politics of difference rooted in it were short lived. Homosexuality, vegetarianism, ecologism, and other "minority" choices and lifestyles had only a few decades to celebrate their victoire a la Pyrrhus over Cartesian universalism. Before long, they became "universally accepted" and so coopted into a new standardizing dynamic (51). Bearing out Michel's suspicion that "differentiation" was essentially "narcissistic" (133), the globalization of difference gave rise to a new "indifference": the more differences were "embraced," the more, we are told, they made up a "system"; the more they shored up that system, the less they forged individuality, and ultimately life, thus revealing themselves as "mankind's ... terminal ideologies" (315). This dynamic happened not because differences tended to even out the plethora of possibilities and choices but, also as in DeLillo, because the new theoretical "incorporations" were at last failed by the theorists' own bodies, and this failure, to which everything boiled down, rendered somatic materialism just another implausibly idealistic construction. The collapse of the body ultimately belied all ideologies and politics, whether they forfeited the body or were boldly premised on it.
However, to ask a question by now familiar, how does one break out of this vicious circle? It bears recognizing, first, that the very glue of human culture, the ancient ideal of "transcendent" love cannot carry the day since neither the self's nor the other's mortal body can be fully relied on. "This immense artist, this creator of ethics, he hasn't yet learned that love is dead!" Daniel1, 25 says of Vincent, the prophet of the new religion that well-nigh supplants all faiths at the beginning of the third millennium (286). However, the prophet has not lost hope. He pledges to find a solution to the physical-metaphysical predicament of the human by "curing" bodily caducity once for all and thus solving the problems it causes. Vincent thinks that love can be rekindled, in fact it can go on forever provided our bodies do so too. As he contends, being with an other, communion into eros, ethos, and ultimately logos, love of a certain body and body of values, morals, and knowledge cannot guarantee "immortality" of either soul or body (286); in fact, it may well be just the other way around. That is, immortal bodies may allow us to love eternally and reach the same Platonic goal by the very road we were taught to steer clear of.
This is the point where cloning comes in, for it ensures--or appears to ensure--the successive reincarnations of the individual and, thus, the advent of the neohuman, in which the human is "stabilized" as the endlessly recursive return of the same. If Daniel24 (or his dog Fox for that matter) is still biologically degradable, he can be cloned as Daniel24, 1 right before his life cycle is over, and so on ad infinitum. Prompted by the body yet hampered by its mortality and consequently a source of discomfort rather than happiness, mankind's quest for the other is beside the point once immortality can be reached without them. Happiness as aponia, a bliss of sorts, redolent of love if not its other name in classical philosophy and Christianity, is or, again, appears achievable now inside the realm of sameness, where identity is serial and the only effective connection links up a clone and its precursors within the series. True, the "love" in play here may involve clones of different people such as Daniel1 and his former girlfriend Esther, both reincarnated centuries after their initial (human) relationship. Or, at least this possibility seems to exist, and it can be argued that this is what originally made Vincent take over the sect's leadership.
Being in the modality of the clone, though, means having an ever-renewable body whose behavioral consistency across embodiments is guaranteed by memory. Physically and intellectually, then, identity comes down to closed-circuit DNA replication within the clone sequence, which is theoretically endless. Thus, at a certain point neohumans stop feeling that contacts outside the series are a need (let alone duty) and more generally stop feeling altogether. The cold ecstasy of self-sufficiency, the ability to keep going without human company, without an environment or a "world" proper, stifles emotions. As long as they "move" the individual "out of" a certain state or place of being (cf. Lat. ex-movere), as long as they "carry" him or her out of the series and its existential and ethical solipsism, emotions prompted by or felt for another being of necessity go against the grain of neohumanism. In fact, in the latter affection and affects at large are irrelevant because the neohuman cannot be "affected" by anything and anybody other than his genome. Ever self-centered, a-communal, the clone revels in a vertical association with the predecessors, whose life stories he reads so as to enhance his memory, what he "knows," not to "feel" and thus ground his knowledge in feelings and more broadly in a life (inter)mediated by others. Divorced from pathos, unlike in human(ist) tradition, this knowledge itself tells Daniel24, 6 that security, autonomy, and genetic immortality hold no "possibility of happiness." Self-sufficient, technically everlasting, the hero knows what he cannot have: true, that is, "unconditional" love (52). Ironically, while Fox's clones are capable of it and its ethical corollary--" [g]oodness, compassion, fidelity, and altruism"--for neohumans they "remain ... impenetrable mysteries" because "the thesis of the genetic origin of moral sentiments" has not been proven "experimentally" (53). But even if altruist deficiency were corrected genetically as were the rest of human flaws, there still was no guarantee neohumans would behave altruistically, that is, act on the "scientifically" acquired moral proclivity and turn to an alter, feel, and care for him or her.
Instead, rendering sexual intercourse with others, and otherness in general, extraneous in its chase after solipsistic happiness, genetic research "call[s] upon" neohumans to live in "absolute physical isolation" (156). So all Daniel25 "interacts" with is the database of memories and stories of former variations of himself or screen images of others like himself, who "interact" similarly. Quotation marks are here in order. No more than hi-tech, autistic pantomime, conspicuously one-directional access to information about the past, "interaction" is an eminently solo plunge into the Library of Babel-like cultural archive of solitude and, thus, genealogy of what in Daniel24 and 25's times becomes the characteristically neohuman hypostasis of being. This type of research does not alter--in all senses--what the "inquisitive" clone is or knows about himself. It merely corroborates what he is, knows, or does--a sameness that thus remains epistemologically and ethically sterile. This connectedness is therefore pseudorelational; it simulates curiosity about others and interest in a relation but only to build up the clone's autarchy. Nor are "horizontal" contacts with other clones in the present, radically different, "intermediation" acts. Fifth-millennium clones of Daniel and Marie live in worlds that seem to communicate absolutely, are fully integrated through the Internet, yet in reality prove separate, shut off from one another. Daniel24, 10 describes Marie22 as his "most assiduous interlocutor," but their "interlocution" is occasional, and it is solely through the computer that he "connects himself" with her (97). "Connection" of this sort signifies an antiphrasis, a radical disconnection of word and meaning in the term itself. For, to be sure, Daniel and Marie are as disconnected as they come. Nor can they be otherwise because their lives, together and individually, follow out the "disembedding" and de-coupling penchant of human history. At a time when humankind was supposed to become unified into a network of superior sociality, it went into a de-socializing tailspin as a result of a global risk society's "convergent mesh of failures" [faisceau convergent d'echecs] (Houellebecq, La possibilite d'une ile 140) to manage the natural world or human nature for that matter. These echecs pertained at first to the subject-object relation, that is, to the (mis)treatment of the world as an object from which the human subject became irreversibly alienated. But once they got "internalized," the ecological fiasco encroached on the "affective" order of the subject to set up "separation" as the way a socially apprehensive "subject constitutes itself," as Daniel24, 10 remarks (The Possibility of an Island 97).
Afflicting the self ontologically and socially, physical pain wound up rendering it unable to "establish interindividual relations in a mode other than that of confrontation" (115). "Sociability" had made human intelligence possible but ran its course around Daniel1's time because "once technologies of artificial transmission had been perfected," social interaction became obsolete. So Supreme Sister's vision for the neohuman future--"the disappearance of social life was the way forward" (115)--only extrapolates from an existing situation. Vincent, for instance, already saw things along these lines when he told Daniel1 that art was a "cosa individuale" (106). And it did not take long even for people such as Daniel1 to feel "that human relations are born, evolve, and die in totally deterministic manner, as inexorably as the movements of a planetary system" (251). "Sociability," he concluded, "had had its day" (292).
4. The Human Remainder: Houellebecq, Baudrillard, and the Cloning Dystopia
This was how the existentialist cliche "you're born alone, you live alone, you die alone" became a sound bite of declining human culture (291), which in turn explains why sociality subsists in the fifth millennium antithetically as synonym for savagery and humanity--for humanity as savagery--what with human clans roaming the post-catastrophic hinterland outside the fence within which neohumans live in separation from one another. Their interest in each other is perfunctory, a digital voyeurism of surfaces, which bespeaks the clone's narcissistic desire of self-replication, of seeing himself or herself in an other. There is no effective exchange in this scopic sizing up of another presence, whether this action occurs diachronically (in the same series) or synchronically (across the series). A paroxistically Baudrillardian "ecstasy of communication" designates here the polar opposite of "being in touch," for it marks the implosion of communication as the term no less than the process itself are turned into their contraries: if the medieval Lat. communicare (from communis, "common") means to make common, impart something initially belonging to distinct parties, then culturally conspicuous neohuman commonality makes sharing superfluous, a lackadaisical half-gesture. In this apathetic attempt to reach out, the Platonic pursuit of the other registers an absolute low. "Indifferent," it is a testimony to the world of in-difference in which it takes place and which it cannot be other than it is because, everywhere the same, equal to itself, thoroughly integrated digitally, repetitious and everlasting, this world does not know difference. Odd as it may look, the same are pushed apart by their very sameness.
This is another juncture where the bleak mediatic imaginary of authors like DeLillo, Pynchon, Richard Powers, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Houellebecq meets Baudrillard's informational apocalypse: the point where the utopia of absolute communication is finally achieved but only to reveal itself as dystopia, total semiotic breakdown. If the clone ultimately consists in previously stored, then perfectly recirculated and restored--reembodied--DNA information, then information exchange becomes superfluous; the neohuman universe is completely integrated, hence the neohumans already have full access to each other, already know--and are like--one another all too well.
Enmeshed in an absolute and absolutely redundant network, the parts--communicating individuals--are both parts and the whole, here and there, now and then successively and concurrently. And so is the "new" information they supposedly have for one another. Only, the data is always-already old story. Because another clone is first and foremost a mimetic reembodiment, a genetically repetitive event, it only subsequently--and scarcely--is an other clone. Daniel and Marie may belong to different series, but they do not fall outside the all-encompassing seriality of the genomic matrix. Consequently, all that clones can "share" with one another is matricial sameness, the inbuilt structural indistinctiveness in which they are already sharing. And even if they did have more to share, in practice instant sharing within this network of already-ubiquitous information rules sharing out. The reproduction of genetic information in the clone and its sequence is homologous to the reproduction and circulation of any kind of information across the network. Necrophiliac, culturally redundant, it again and again resurrects the same in an ever-rehashed phenomenology where, within the neohuman "personality" and "among" neohumans, happiness does mean immortality but immortality implies the death of difference and the implosion of being.
Baudrillard makes it clear that this is cloning's ultimate upshot. As he writes in "The Final Solution: Cloning Beyond the Human and Inhuman," the opening chapter of The Vital Illusion, "Blindly we dream of overcoming death through immortality, when all the time immortality is the most horrific of possible fates. Encoded in the earliest life of our cells, this fate is now reappearing on our horizon, so to speak, with the advent of cloning. (The death drive, according to Freud, is precisely this nostalgia for a state before the appearance of individuality and sexual differentiation, a state in which we lived before we became mortal and distinct from one another. Absolute death is not the end of the individual human being; rather, it is a regression toward a state of minimal differentiation among living beings, of a pure repetition of identical beings)" (6). "In evolutionary terms," Baudrillard adds, "the victory goes to beings that are mortal and distinct from one another," that is, to "us." But "the game isn't over yet" because "the reversion is always possible." The relapse can occur in the "viral revolt of our cells," in cancer, that is, when a cell "forgets how to die" and "goes on again and again, making thousands of identical copies of itself, thus forming a tumor." Or, it can happen "in the enormous enterprise we living beings ourselves undertake today: a project to reconstruct a homogenous and uniformly consistent universe--an artificial continuum this time--that unfolds within a technological and mechanical medium, extending over our vast information network, where we are in the process of building a perfect clone, an identical copy of our world, a virtual artifact that opens up the prospect of endless reproduction." A "revenge taken on mortal and sexed beings by immortal and undifferentiated life forms," this "immortality" is "pathological" culturally, existentially, and otherwise, for it "actively work[s] at the 'dis-information' of our species through the nullification of differences." "This may well be," Baudrillard ventures,
the story of a deliberate project to put an end to the genetic game of difference, to stop the divagations of the living. Aren't we actually sick of sex, of difference, of manipulation, of emancipation, of culture? The world of individuals and social relations itself offers striking examples of this exhaustion--or resistance--or nostalgic attachment to some prior state of being. In any case, we are dealing with a kind of revisionism, a crucial revision of the whole process of evolution and especially that of the human race--a species unable to brave its own diversity, its own complexity, its own radical difference, its own alterity. But perhaps we may see this as a kind of adventure, a heroic test: to take the artificialization of living beings as far as possible in order to see, finally, what part of human nature survives the great ordeal. If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could truly be called "human": some inalienable and indestructible human quality could finally be identified. Of course, there is always the risk, in this experimental adventure, that nothing will pass the test--that the human will be permanently eradicated. (5-16)
Houellebecq's dystopia does both. For one thing, it chronicles the human's erasure. Attempting to clone itself, the human took the risk of self-eradication; once achieved, the ideal of the same's self-presence de facto sanctions its opposite: "self-absencing." For another thing, the Epilogue does record the failure of the de-differentiating utopian/dystopian project in the survival of the human as the unclonable. Disgusted with human bodies and human sexuality in general yet not much taken with Marie22's digitally accessed corporeality either, Daniel25 grows weary of life inside the asocial, neohuman group. Atrophied as it may have been by millennia of isolation, the human nevertheless lives on in the neohuman as the irreproducible "remnant" or, Baudrillard might say, as the "un-Xeroxable" that "nags" at Marie23 and acts as a sort of existential malaise or gene that at long last does what the elusive altruistic gene [gene de l'altruisme] (Houellebecq, La possibilite d'une ile 78) never accomplished: "dr[ive Marie 23] to leave, to imagine that a social community--of humans and neohumans ... ha[s] formed somewhere, and that she ha[s] discovered a new mode of relational organization" (Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island 299; emphasis mine). Like her, Daniel25 ends up "defecting," retracing her way out in search of a "community" (299), of the "possibility of an island" (300) outside the neohuman enclaves. So, we understand, what got us in trouble, our humanness, may also save us. Trying to "build itself a deathless alter ego," as Baudrillard says, global-era humankind risks putting itself to death (The Vital Illusion 17). Whatever lives on as reproducible human code, in humanity-as-information--in "inhumanity"--"aboli[shes] all that is 'human, all too human'" (19). Furthermore, "differentiat[ing]" us superficially and thereby failing to "preserve us from the hell of the same," contemporary culture makes things worse (25). It can hardly supply a solution because its repetitive rationality is the problem. As a matter of fact, the philosopher says, "it is this culture that clones us ... under the sign of" a "monothought" that "annuls differences" through a mass educational-mediatic system in which "singular beings become identical copies of one another" (25). As critics such as Baudrillard and writers such as Houellebecq underscore, "it is the culture of difference itself, our humanist ethos itself,' that may "wor[k] most efficiently in the direction of undifferentiation, of human Xerox copies (26)." The Possibility of an Island points to this possibility but also to a little more heartening scenario, with the human as the "rest" (see the French reste, difference) still in play--still vibrant, unique, "differential"--at the end of all additions, duplications, and calculations.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Vital Illusion. Ed. by Julia Witwer. New York: Columbia UP, 2000.
DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1997.
Dewey, Joseph, Steven G. Kellman, and Irving Malin, ed. UnderWords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo's Underworld. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2002.
Houellebecq, Michel. The Elementary Particles. Trans. Frank Wynne. New York: Random House, 2000.
--. Lapossibilite d'une ile. Paris: Fayard, 2005.
--. The Possibility of an Island. Trans. Gavin Bowd. New York: Knopf, 2006.
--. Whatever. Trans. Paul Hammond. London: Serpent's Tail, 1998.
Ostrowski, Carl. "Conspiratorial Jesuits in the Postmodern Novel: Mason & Dixon and Underworld." Dewey, Kellman, and Malin. 93-102.
Parrish, Timothy L. "Pynchon and DeLillo." Dewey, Kellman, and Malin. 79-92.
Launay, Marc de. "Wert, Geltung, Gelten, Gultigkeit." Vocabulaire europeen des philosophies. Dictionnaire des intraduisibles. Ed. Barbara Cassin. Paris: Seuil. Le Robert, 2004. 1397-1402.
(1) For the critical accolades, see the dust jacket of the English edition--The Possibility o fan Island--of Houellebecq's novel.
(2) On Mason & Dixon and Underworld, see Ostrowski in Joseph Dewey, Steven G. Keilman, and Irving Malin 93-102.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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