Pittsburgh, PA. Michel Houellebecq has a new collection of essays out in English, confirming his mind to be riveted to only a few themes. His novels and essays taken as one express a single personality with a single intellectual thrust. This is no flaw per se. “A novelist is condemned,” wrote Evelyn Waugh, “to produce a succession of novelties, new names for characters, new incidents for his plots, new scenery; but . . . most men harbour the germs of one or two books only; all else is professional trickery of which the most daemonic of the masters—Dickens and Balzac even—were flagrantly guilty.” Bergson and Heidegger each owned as well that any philosopher has only one idea repeated in endless variation.
The idea presiding in Houellebecq is that the worship of individual autonomy destroys love. If love is the meaning of life, then a society bent on autonomy for its members will tend to rob life of meaning. “Once you’ve said it, it sounds obvious,” Houellebecq said in another context, “but I wanted to say it.”
Yet in an earlier article, I argued that Houellebecq’s achievements as an artist rest less on his themes than on his forms. Houellebecq refurbished the novel with his unflinching focus on the sociological character of modern consciousness. Today, people need to arm themselves with abstract ideas about society simply to cope. This was not always the case. In earlier times, stable culture gave us an implicit understanding of the world which rarely needed raising into explicit consciousness. Back then, weighing choices in light of abstract theories was uncommon. Now, as “minimal selves” that are “under siege,” to use Christopher Lasch’s words, we can hardly come to grips with our world without recourse to ideas reducing events, entities, and people—including the first-person “I”—to instances of abstract categories. The triumph of abstraction smothers our world in labels that obscure their referents. This prompts familiar complaints that our world seems unreal and alien.
This cancerous abstraction seems to have kept pace with the growth of mass media and mass education. It was discernible in the age of pre-electrical mass literacy, became stronger in the age of TV and movies, and has reached unprecedented heights in the age of the smartphone. People have of course always taken their cues from others. But this sociological consciousness is not so much a social consciousness as its animatronic travesty. People learn rigid categories from mass society and then apply those to themselves and others; encounters polluted by mass socialization lack a sense of reality. And this individual who must theorize and categorize is not so much burdened by expectation as he is confused about what is expected of him.
The conformity of mass society, which is the paradoxical gift of freedom, comes not from without but from within. The inhabitant of the developed world is Byung-Chul Han’s “achievement subject,” no longer under the constraint of bourgeois mores but rather freed or cursed to realize his potential in the face of a death that he knows to be a passageway into nothingness. For this person, all experience takes on the pattern of realizing one’s potential; even pleasure is felt as an accomplishment that supposedly makes one’s death less of a death. “Living life to the max” and ticking off items from your “bucket list” are phrases epitomizing our conception of what the human being is.
To realize your potential is the one thing necessary. But to do so, the achievement subject must fit himself into mass society; he must look for an entrée and then foothold after foothold, wasting no time; he must study what one does to wrest achievement out of a world, at once splendid and terrifying, where “you can do anything if you put your mind to it.” It is just this “putting your mind to it” that requires entry into the world of abstraction, of theorizing privately, of acquiring a consciousness essentially sociological. “Man no longer seeks to know himself in order that he may acquire self-mastery,” wrote Jacques Ellul, “but simply in order that he may be used. He is no longer concerned to discover his true ‘image,’ but to reduce it to a state of ‘facsimile.’” Ellul made the all-important point that a mass society is an atomized society. The individual who considers himself autonomous only appears when he is socialized into the mass and so understands himself as a particle in the mass. The autonomous person therefore takes a deep and self-conscious interest in society and its requirements. So between mind and world now hangs a curtain of sociological theory. The patterns on this curtain are visible everywhere in media.
Because his characters theorize about society – not in a disinterested fashion but out of personal need – some have charged Houellebecq with not writing novels at all but tracts glazed with narrative. This is wrong. Novels that excise the sociological consciousness of contemporary people fail to show the real. The essays under review show in fact how much Houellebecq benefitted from the novel form. The essay form has a judicial character. The essayist judges but is not himself judged. Even self-criticism only affirms the essayist’s power to judge. Thus the essay form, like all forms, is flawed. The pathos of Houellebecq’s fiction is in how the theorist who judges society is also the person who suffers and feels. Theory is unmasked as sublimated passion.
These essays, then, gain interest because their author also wrote the novels Submission and Whatever. Read in isolation, the essays would provoke thought but would not, as his novels did, make him an outstanding literary figure of our time. Still, the thoughts provoked by the essays strike me as simple, brutal, and convincing: The developed world fetishizes individual autonomy. This fetish relies on and reinforces a world-structure that one can only call mechanical. The hardening of this structure prevents escape, as does its spread to every inch of the earth. A vicious cycle swells both the separation between people and the mechanization of society, as two limbs of a poisonous tree. Loyalty, conceived as domination, decreases. Disloyalty, conceived as freedom, increases. This manipulable world comes to seem loveless, even hostile. Usefulness engenders meaninglessness.
This is the thread running through these pieces, published as journalism over thirty years. The rest of this review traces this thread through Houellebecq’s examinations of architecture, science fiction, religion, technology, and human contact.
In considering contemporary architecture, Houellebecq focuses on “distress.” This is apt. Our artifacts are not simply passive. They guide our intuition of what the world is. For Houellebecq, the essence of our glass and steel buildings is pure functionality, shown in the qualities of transparency and smoothness. As Houellebecq almost says, our architecture refuses to be a symbol. But in this it fails; this refusal is impossible. Rather, our architecture symbolizes paradoxically the unsymbolic nature of our world. Purely functional buildings say that nothing says anything—but this is still a saying, a loud one. Hence the distress. Amid functional architecture, pedestrians show
a phenomenon clearly marked by anxiety . . . all their organic secretions will go into overdrive. In each case, the functional unit comprising the organs of vision and the locomotor limbs will experience significant intensification . . . . [i]mmersed in their usual world of steel, glass and signposts, visitors immediately rediscover the rapid stride, the functional and oriented gaze that correspond to the environment offered them.
This is the consequence of being surrounded by efficiency, which is the acceleration of movements for the sake of acceleration alone. Because “all contemporary architecture must be considered as an immense apparatus for the acceleration and rationalization of human movements,” it divorces itself from beauty, defined as a “way of taking revenge on reason.” The natural world impresses us not with its efficiency but by its superfluity, Houellebecq perceives. So our efficient, rational architecture is neither human nor natural. Functional architecture delivers not so much aesthetic disappointment as the sensation of an attack whose results even express themselves physiologically. Bereft of symbols, we feel a distress that has no name.
If these essays can be said to show the development of Houellebecq’s thought, the most obvious example would be his exchange of an early emphasis on science for a later one on religion. From both phenomena, he hoped for the advent of a higher principle that could ravage the loveless “neoliberal” hell that so afflicts him. As a literary man, he explored science in part through science fiction. Correctly, he admires that genre’s masterpieces from the last century.
As significant as that genre was, though, many will agree that the wind has gone out of its sails. Science fiction feels as mannered today as the adultery novel or the country-house murder mystery; even the word “galaxy,” once so inspiring, has an antiquated sound. The clones, robots, and hypersleep voyages of science fiction suggested that the fate of technology was gigantism in speed and scale. But that future is now in the past.
This is because science fiction was the technological Old Testament. It anticipated an external kingdom of flying cars and moon colonies and other visible immensities. Science fiction vibrated with the anticipation that technology developed past a certain point would qualitatively change humanity. This was the kingdom foretold. But it came to pass that the kingdom of science fiction arrived in a most perplexing way, confounding expectation even as it fulfilled it; the internet, bearing fruit in the smartphone, revealed that in fact the kingdom of science fiction is within you. In 1999, David Bowie, the rock star most attuned to science fiction, pronounced the internet an “alien lifeform,” against the cavils of an interviewer who called it “just a tool.” “Is there life on Mars?” Bowie asked. “Yes, it’s just landed here.” Here perhaps the age of science-fiction prophecy ends, as the forerunner points his finger at the approaching figure. Some keep their eyes peeled for starships, but most of us simply stare at our phones. The kingdom came.
The 2007 iPhone launch – preserved for us on YouTube where it attracts millions of hits and crowns an unending stream of adoring, near-slavish comments – has an undeniably Mosaic feel. Steve Jobs, with his flat programmer’s affect and corporate stock of words, makes for an unlikely lawgiver come down from the mountain. Yet he delivers: the magic moment comes when Jobs shows a slide with the words “iPod,” “Phone,” and “Internet,” each beneath a spare and blunted Apple icon. These hover there in tense juxtaposition. Then, Jobs: “An iPod… a phone… and an internet communicator.” His voice turns as incantatory as it can. A not entirely sycophantic ripple of astonished laughter moves through the dark crowd. “Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device!” The response—“woo!”—is our analogue to “amen.” The people have received the law.
The smartphone has no novel functions. Photography, recording, and rapid communication were around a century ago; the significance is in the interpenetration and acceleration of preexistent functions. But this “small” change changes everything.
The smartphone turns every person into both spectator and broadcaster, everywhere and always. By its power, we step into the spectacle that we once only passively received: concerns about virtual reality are misguided if they fail to grasp that virtual reality in any meaningful sense is already endemic once the spectator-broadcaster distinction has sufficiently weakened. Once across this threshold, we deal with abstractions of people and offer abstractions of ourselves. The virtual becomes the real; the etymology of “virtual” suggests a magic spell overpowering our better judgment. Alfred North Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (mistaking an abstraction from being for being itself) reaches an unheard of intensity. Human beings reduce themselves voluntarily to only those aspects of themselves suitable for broadcast. And because this compulsion to exhibit ourselves comes from within, there can be no resistance. In Byung-Chul Han’s terms, “auto-compulsion” is a deeper slavery than “allo-compulsion”—compulsion by another, which can generate resistance. Auto-compulsion generates no resistance. (I turn again to Han because he seems at times like a shrewder Houellebecq than Houellebecq in discursive writing.)
The smartphone is both the culmination of mass media and the fulfillment of science-fiction prophecy. New inventions will appear, but the qualitative threshold—making people into broadcaster-spectators, everywhere and always—has been crossed. Simone Weil wrote:
Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication . . . . Every separation is a link.
Today, we upend this parable. For us, every link is a separation—because the links of internet media permit only abstractions to pass through them. We shattered ourselves into those fragments intelligible to mass society and then identified ourselves with those fragments. There are simply fewer encounters now between people because there are fewer countenances. The etymology of “countenance” shows it cousinhood with “container.” “Countenance” suggests an enclosure and the glimpsing into its content; it suggests the revealing of oneself in face, in bearing, in unguarded speech. Internet content is not a countenance. But today encounters in person come more and more to resemble internet content. Houellebecq points to the
very contemporary fact that conversation is now impossible. In everyday conversation, it’s exactly as if the direct expression of a feeling, an emotion, or an idea had become impossible because it’s too vulgar. Everything has to pass through the distorting filter of humour, a humour that of course ends up being empty and turning into tragic silence.
People are on guard today, and the more “worldly-wise” they are, the more on guard. They intuit that their actions and speech are all about to be stored up for future broadcast, so with crafty deliberation they make masks for themselves to be shared and liked in place of their real faces. This happens even when phones are put away because people are pliant, and they learn what to do. “Since I was twelve years old, I have seen the range of opinions that can be expressed in the press constantly shrink,” Houellebecq says. What occurred in the press is occurring in the populace. This is possible only in a society of unending recording and broadcast, rooted in a richer and more durable form of surveillance than any the Stasi or Gestapo could have dreamed of because our own willed activity powers the surveillance.
This is why science fiction and dystopia have lost their power to enchant. Their preoccupation with compulsion from without hid the real danger: compulsion from within. Houellebecq perhaps shifted his interests from science fiction to religion once he detected that the inclinations of one’s heart are the source of evil more than any physical structure we could erect.
Houellebecq agonizes about his lack of faith, so I conclude that faith is deeply planted in him. Agonies about faith are conspicuous today only in their absence. We evaluate sects, if at all, by their politics alone. The atheism in the tradition of Richard Dawkins, which strives to defeat the Almighty in a game of Stump the Chump, has in truth little influence except among negligible people. Our interest is in sating desire, not in contemplating reality. Our supposed fascination with science is illusory. “Science,” as conceived in mass culture, is simply our alibi for doing what we intended to do anyway. Those professing belief in this “science” are needless to say not poring over the papers of Erwin Schrödinger. Those affirming this “science” are simply testifying that they believe our way of life to be basically good, though it needs a bit of elbow grease.
So, to adapt Lao Tzu, the atheism that can be named is not the real atheism. Houellebecq, his eyes full of tears as he proclaims the non-existence of God, is clearly closer to Christ on Golgotha than is the technical-psychological individual absorbed in productivity, in afterwork activities of relief from productivity (“letting off steam”), in narcissism (“getting yourself out there”), or in amassing “experiences” to supposedly justify his life. What Houellebecq avers—that God has rejected him—is combustible spiritually, whereas the psychological-technical individual is flush with thoughts essentially flame-retarding.
The closure of the material world against anything beyond it was accomplished not by science or philosophy but by our addiction to the realization of potentials—in sexual novelty, in social recognition, in overcoming challenges (whatever their nature as long as they deliver the sensation of power), and in rubbing up against pseudo-spiritual entities designated “cool” or “prestigious” or “charismatic.” Houellebecq has wallowed in these fakes of meaning; so have we all.
But Houellebecq is redeemed by his unshakeable intuition that this is all very disgusting and unworthy of us. When he proclaims desire itself to be evil, he kicks our Weltanschauung in its tenderest spot. In his despair and complaints against a God whom he hates for not existing, Houellebecq adheres to what we could call Type 1 Atheism, which is only the ugly, thickly stitched backside of the tapestry of faith and is thus a needful moment in it. Type 2 atheism, our culture’s dominant mode, is the real atheism. In Type 2, one’s own desire can never seem disgusting; desire, on the contrary, confers worth; worth and desirability are synonymous. Type 2 worships the realization of one’s potential before an everlasting death. Wittingly or not, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was referring to this Type 2 Atheism in his prison letters when he wrote that “it is becoming evident that everything gets along without ‘God’—and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.” No “argument” made this state of affairs. Our absorption in projects to “realize your potential” diverted horizontally the spiritual energy that would have gone toward the transcendent. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
Houellebecq resists this hypnotism perhaps because of his experience as a loser, our society’s analogue to the sinner. During his experience with Pentecostalism (you see how assiduously this nonbeliever drunk-dials his old flame) it seemed to him like a sect fit only for misfits such as himself—those who had “hit rock bottom,” drug addicts, prostitutes, and the homeless. Houellebecq glimpsed that this potent form of faith erupts only when all worldly hopes have been extinguished—but so long as hope remains for luxuriating in the narcissistic consumer culture, faith can appear only as the meaningless negation of everything that makes life worth living. The Feuerbach-Marx tradition must be stood on its head. It isn’t our weaknesses that make us “project” a heaven of our own imagination; rather, our inflamed capacities dull our spiritual perceptions. Compulsive desire is what blinds.
Unfortunately, everything urges us to desire. The arousal of desire is the purpose of our public life. Advertising, as Houellebecq puts it,
sets up a harsh and terrifying Superego, much more ruthless than any imperative that has ever existed, one that sticks to the individual’s skin and keeps repeating: ‘You must desire. You must be desirable. You must participate in competition, in struggle, in the life of the world. If you stop, you no longer exist. If you fall behind, you’re dead.’
A few stiff-necked people may fight this from time to time; most cannot. The notion of the autonomous individual positing goals to pursue is the Wittgensteinian “picture that holds us captive” and as such cannot be put to the question; rather than being an object of thought, it is the background of all thought and so attains the invincibility of the invisible. The arousal of desire inoculates us against religious agony. Why this inoculation never took hold of Houellebecq is due in part to his troubled life, due in part to the mystery of character. The aggregation of developed persons of course feel very differently.
For all that, as much as desire suffuses everything, Houellebecq notes a corresponding weakening of the will: “A person is no longer in a position to have an organized, constant will, pursuing a goal. She allows herself to be led by circumstances, and that’s why my characters in general don’t react much.” Our times feel anything but Promethean. We bathe in stimuli rather than seeking adventure. If the lure of modernity was to write your own story, then modernity must be reckoned a trick. For many in the developed world, life is no story but a lot of puzzling and incoherent sensations. And the lack of a story is no brief philosophical privation but is a disease permeating the conduct of life. “People,” Houellebecq says, “to say the least, don’t know how to live anymore. The chaos is so total, the disarray so generalized, that no model of behavior inherited from ancient centuries seems applicable to the times in which we live.”
Efficiency and Technique
For the autonomous individual to take his place as priest-king of existence, our world must first pass a certain threshold of automation so dependence between people can dissolve. Houellebecq is sure that the lust for efficiency is an essential and not an accidental quality of modern society. “[T]he ideal of the technician . . . has guided the historical movement of Western societies since the end of the Middle Ages, and which can be summed up in one sentence: ‘If it’s technically doable, it will be technically done.’” He appears to take this mechanizing tendency, correctly in my view, as the necessary prior condition for the sacralization of individual desire. He agrees then with a passage from Charles Péguy’s last essay reflecting on the modern world:
Venality, which appears to be a loosening and dissolution, and which is in effect a loosening of morals and a dissolution of rules, or if you wish, a loosening of rules and a dissolution of morals, comes in reality, it also, from a certain preliminary making-rigid, a certain elementary making rigid.
Mechanization and moral anarchy are twins that grow up together. This is an enigma yet to be explained in public. It is curious that, although those who planted the seeds of the technical society were moral fanatics by our lights, the world they made melted down the moral strictures whose vanishing they could hardly have imagined or blessed. Intended or not, a world worshipping efficiency now stands inviolable. Yet Houellebecq sees in this very trait a seed of destruction:
Sparta prided itself on efficiency and, for this reason, disappeared without a trace. Our society, too, likes to boast of its efficiency; it will disappear, like Sparta, and maybe all that will remain is the uncertain memory of a shame, the shadow of a certain disgust.
Now and then we betray an implicit understanding that efficiency is our enemy, he observes, especially in the relief people show when large-scale systems break down:
[O]nce the first moment of annoyance is overcome, the public’s reaction to a sudden shutdown of the information transmission networks is far from being absolutely negative . . . . what manifests itself . . . is actually a secret joy; it’s as if fate were giving them an opportunity to take a sly revenge on technology.
I’ve seen this too; when the database crashes, when the internet goes out, it’s as though a sadistic boss had dropped dead before our eyes, and the loss of income is offset by the pleasure of watching him croak. Even adults love a snow day. In moments like these we remember what has been suppressed: modernity has not led to independence, except from people; it has in fact shackled us to the interlocking totality of means that is global civilization. Modernity has revealed that there is finally no independence, simply different modes of dependence. So the “secret joy” when systems break down is from an intuition that the technological system determines us and not vice versa.
This inhuman efficiency might be tolerable if it permitted human contact, but the arrangement seems to be that the more mechanical our world becomes, the fewer genuine encounters there can be. This insight allows Houellebecq to interpret the COVID lockdowns with a keen eye.
Whatever one’s opinion of the response to the disease, what is undeniable is that so many people of influence took for granted that safety must always trump social relations and that the human being is not the center of a web of loyalties and commitments but is rather a physical fact needing technical management. Nothing, it was revealed to us, is worth risking life for—nothing. If other occasions for risk remain, this is evidently only because administration has not yet found the means to quash them. It was revealed that no danger is greater than death. It was revealed that life is sheer matter and not something else, for example, the capacity for love.
As if anticipating these quibbles from the benighted past, in a strange and wily inversion, lockdown extremists described their sacralization of physical perdurance as itself the highest form of solidarity and love, and they depicted the desire to meet for any purpose, even to bury one’s dead, as selfishness, as incontinence, as a kind of animal gormandizing of others’ presences. What shocked was not that anyone held these beliefs but that so many at the helm of the world took them for granted. Though some saw in the lockdowns a radical break, Houellebecq more perceptively pronounced them an elaboration of deeper trends:
For quite a few years, all technological developments, whether minor (video on demand, contactless payment) or major (teleworking, Internet shopping, social networks) have mainly had the consequence (or main objective?) of decreasing material contacts, and especially human contacts. The coronavirus epidemic offers a magnificent reason for this monotonous trend: a certain obsolescence that seems to strike at human relations.
Covid revealed but did not establish the tendency toward separation. This tendency is not simply one of “lifestyle”; this is the congealing of a metaphysical take on the world. Are the “relata”—isolated things—ontologically prior to the relations between them? Iain McGilchrist has recently published a two-volume work arguing that logic and science demand that we privilege relation. The work is entirely convincing. Yet for us, the relata—autonomous individuals—are totally prior to the relations, which we think of contractually so that even friendship or romance become like joint-stock companies for turning a narcissistic profit.
“Did we yield to the illusion of individual freedom, of an open life, or infinite possibilities?” says a character in one of Houellebecq’s novels, ruminating on his life and those of his ex-girlfriends, “It’s possible; those ideas were part of the spirit of the age; we didn’t formalize them, we didn’t have the taste to do that; we merely conformed and allowed ourselves to be destroyed by them; and then, for a very long time, to suffer as a result.” Lasch however formalized them in his characterization of consumer culture: “Ideally, choices of friends, lovers, and careers should all be subject to immediate cancellation: such is the open-ended, experimental conception of the good life upheld by the propaganda of commodities, which surrounds the consumer with images of unlimited possibility.” Only a hop, skip, and a jump separate that creed from the belief that nothing is worth risking life for. Surveying this scene, Houellebecq delivers a prophecy of how humanity will go extinct:
Not a blockbuster film. Something pretty bleak. Individuals living isolated in their cells, without physical contact with their peers, just a few exchanges by computer, then fewer and fewer.
“[M]aybe I make people anxious,” says Houellebecq, “So, ultimately, they want me to utter some reassuring words like, ‘This was all for fun. In fact, everything is fine. Everything is getting better and better.” He means what he says. Some may speculate that Houellebecq simply has a vocation for unhappiness, that he “sucks melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.” But his pessimism is precise and integral: he aims it against the shattering of loyalty and against the machine world where we find ourselves. This is not irritable kvetching but considered critique, however much rooted in personality – and is there any thought not rooted in personality? The wish for Houellebecq to withdraw his indictment could derive not only from cowardice or denial but also from the hope that this perspicacious writer might offer, if not a solution, then at least a suggestion. This he has done in one of these essays by quoting Versilov in Dostoevsky’s Raw Youth:
As to being obliged to make the happiness of at least one creature in the course of your life, but to do so practically, that is to say effectively, it’s something I would set up as a command for any cultivated man, just as I would make it an obligation for every peasant to plant at least one tree in his life, given the deforestation of Russia.