Saturday, July 18, 2015

Repost: The Progressive Condition: The Cynical Art of Michel Houellebecq

“What we have today is the hegemonic figure of the liberal subject who, like Nietzsche’s Last Man, is concerned only with the pursuit of private pleasures + ideals of happiness.”

– Slavoj Žižek

Michel Houellebecq is known for his abrasive and vulgar wit, as a pamphleteer of literature; a pornographer of the neoliberal market place of ideas in its darker contours, a sexploitative tourist of the flyways within a global system that has lost itself among the labyrinths of its own economic nightmares; and, as a man who has been accused of obscenity, racism, misogyny and Islamophobia among other things. But beyond the surface tension of the mediasphere hype he is more a product of our free-market era than its perpetrator or victim. One might even suggest that he incarnates the Progressive Condition that is both our glory and possible demise: he is the Last Man in its hollowed out core tumbling toward that narrative aporia beyond which none of us will remain human.

As Ben Jeffery will put it Houellebecq’s narratives inhabit that space in the negative undertow of the enlightenment, a realm where “we are able to see ourselves as merely creatures, rather than God’s creatures, and nature as purposeless matter, rather than divine plan. Humans are just animals, and, unsurprisingly, that knowledge gives precedence to biological impulse; to strength, health and beauty over weakness, infirmity and repulsiveness – and it makes self-interest paramount” (Jeffery, Ben (2011-11-16). Anti-Matter: Michel Houellebecq and Depressive Realism (p. 15). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition). This notion of rational self-interest has been one of those elements that that runs through most thought for the past two-centuries, a thematic or leit-motif of our Progressive Condition.

The original progressives held the consistent conviction that a “public interest” or “common good” really existed (Nugent, Walter (2009-12-04). Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (Kindle Locations 258-259). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition). In our time this notion has taken on the fabric of a lie, a fiction that democrats continue to support in theory, republicans laugh at, but in practice both agree is just that: a nice idea that is best left in the shadows or hinterlands of the public unconscious. It’s in this society of moral bankruptcy and decay that Houellebecq situates his characters. They are much like himself (and much of his fiction comes right out of his life) cynical in the sense of Diogenes: a street art that shits on the most respectable citizens as if this was just the natural order of existence. As Sloterdijk in his Kritik der zynischen Vernunft (English: Critique of Cynical Reason) will inform us of Cynicism after Diogenes:
Its insights disclose the questionable and ridiculous aspects of the grand, serious systems. Its intelligence is floating, playful, essayistic, not laid out on secure foundations and final principles. Diogenes inaugurates the Gay Science (Nietzsche) by treating serious sciences in a tongue-in-cheek manner. How much truth is contained in something can be best determined by making it thoroughly laughable and then watching to see how much joking around it can take. For truth is a matter that can stand mockery, that is freshened by any ironic gesture directed at it. Whatever cannot stand satire is false. To parody a theory and its proponents is to carry out the experiment of experiments with it. (Critique of Cynical Reason, translation by Michael Eldred; foreword by Andreas Huyssen, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1988, 288)
So that Houellebecq’s humor is both subtle and full of satiric intent, tongue-and-cheek cynicism that neither takes itself seriously nor expects to be taken seriously. Against a postmodern nihilist reading of his works one might actually see in it a critique of our eras Progressive Condition. Sloterdijk believed that this condition of our time was best typified by the difference between ancient and modern forms of cynicism, suggesting that unlike ancient Greek Cynicism the modern one no longer stands for values of the natural and ethical kind that bind people beyond their religious and economically useful convictions. Rather, it has become a mode of thought that defines its actions in terms of a “final end” of a purely materialistic sort and reduces the “ought” to an economic strategy aimed at maximizing profit. This new grittier market realism, what Mark Fisher will call “Capital Realism“, and Ben Jeffery as simply – “Depressive Realism” underlies most of Houellebeq’s novels and stories. His satires are for the most part taken at face value rather than as ironic and satirical statements about our eras cynicism in its rawest forms.

As Houellebecq will say through one of his characters: ‘Contemporary consciousness is no longer equipped to deal with our mortality. More than at any time or in any civilization, human beings are obsessed with aging. Each individual has a simple view of the future: a time will come when the sum of pleasures that life has left to offer is outweighed by the sum of pain (one can actually feel the meter ticking, and it ticks inevitably towards the end). This weighing up of pleasure and pain which, sooner or later, everyone is forced to make, leads logically, at a certain age, to suicide.’ (Jeffrey, pp. 15-16) This pop-cult psychoanalysis of our condition as a Freudian pleasure/pain dialectic that leads to suicide is seen almost everyday in various pop-cultural spheres: musicians, artists, performers, etc. committing suicide through drugs, self-inflicted wounds, et. al..

In his book on H.P. Lovecraft he will relate the basic condition of our era:
For humans of the end of the twentieth century, this cosmos devoid of hope is absolutely our world. This abject universe, where fear spreads in concentric circles from the unnameable revelation, this universe where our only imaginable destiny is to be crushed and devoured, we recognize absolutely as our mental universe. (Michel Houellebecq. Translated by Robin Mackay. H.P. Lovecraft Against the world, against life, Believer Books; First Edition edition (May 1, 2005))
This is the world according to Houellebecq, our world in its downward devolution into that strange and twisted thing it is. A market world where the maximization of everything is accelerating us into that disjunctive era where the lines between the human and inhuman blur, and we enter the machinic phylum like “dogs in the street barking”.


Source: S.C. Hickman, "The Progressive Condition: The Cynical Art of Michel Houellebecq," Alien Ecologies blog, June 12, 2015, accessed July 18, 2015,

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