“The problem is, it’s not just enough to live by the rules. Sure, you manage to live by them. Sometimes it’s tight, extremely tight, but on the whole you manage. Your tax papers are up to date. Your invoices paid on time. You never go out without your identity card (and the special little wallet for your Visa!) And yet you haven’t any friends.”
Welcome to co-modified man, Michel Houellebecq style. These lines in Houellebecq’s first novel, Extension du domain de la lutte, capture well not just the concerns of the writer’s first novel, not just the Philippe Harel film that adapts closely its pre-occupations, and that Houellebecq co-wrote, but also a certain condition in modern man, a condition that certainly incorporates aspects of dull choice, but also insistently segues into abjection. We could almost say the Houellebecqian world is when anomie meets anatomy. Where a character like Bruno in the existentially oriented Kings of the Road will take it as given that he can sleep with a woman no matter its general meaninglessness; for Our Hero (Harel) here, getting laid is an active struggle. Bruno is alienated certainly, but his alienation is that of a man at one remove from the world through an existential choice, however shaped by history both personal and impersonal that decision happens to be. Our Hero is alienated much more by advanced’s capitalism’s need to demarcate – it is demarcation rather than alienation. As Our Hero says in voice over, there are winners and losers in the world. People like himself and more especially his work colleague Tisserand (Jose Garcia) may earn good money in IT, and thus are winners in one sphere, but their sexual life is non-existent, and they must accept their loser status there.
Now what Extension du Domaine de la Lutte (Whatever) wants to do, in keeping with Houellebecqian obsession, is suggest the centrality of sexual desire to emotional despair, even to full-blown clinical depression. It’s not a throwaway when near the end of the film the psychiatrist asks when Our Hero last had sex; it is central to the film’s problematic of anomie coming out of anatomy, coming out of an obsessive world of sexuality, and where no sexual possibilities are available. It’s like a variation on Michel Foucault’s notion of scientia sexualis, where the obsession with sex manifested itself in a culture desperate to know about the sexual act, to ‘scientize’ it. It is a notion central to the Victorian era and the early twentieth century’s attitude to sex and to some degree onwards: incorporating, we could say, Freud, Kinsey and Hite. Today however it’s closer to a kind of economicus sexualis, where sexuality is so co-modified that to be outside the loop, to be deemed too physically unattractive, too asocial or too shy to get laid, all contribute to the creation of an anatomical anomie that is spiritually de-grading but intellectually easy to trace.
This is a spiritual degradation that makes Houellebecq’s universe deterministic, and undeniably overly simplistic, but it’s also a symptomatically useful way of seeing the nature of being at the end of the 20th century. After all, Our Hero is a man who says, “I don’t like this world. I definitely do not like it. The society in which I live – advertising, computers – disgusts me. My entire work as a computer expert consists of adding to the data, the cross-checks, the criteria of rational decision-making…This world has need of everything except more information.” We may ask is this where the sex industry comes in, where our sense of futility with information meets emotional needs but as sexual desire? What we may require is an emotional sustenance and a world of tenderness, but such is the level of co-modification that we raise our emotional expectations to a level no higher than that required for masturbation, prostitution or the one night stand – through ultimately non-commital relationships. So where Bruno in Kings of the Road insists he always feels lonely inside a woman; it’s as though that is a problem consistent with a nauseous state that struggles to generate meaning in a life, but in Houellebecq’s book and Harel’s film it is as though meaning can only justifiably be generated out of the pornographic, the empty, the sexually co-modified.
This may leave a problem on one level but it’s also a resolution of a problem on another. If we accept that we live generally in a society that is homo economicus, and where time is money, then we can see why it makes sense that to deal with this economic state we have a co-modified sexual culture to accompany it. Thus we can see that pornography, or prostitution, isn’t just a problem (and after all the latter’s hardly a new industry), but its problem resides to some degree in its nature as a solution. As Our Hero insists, informing us that he’s been without sex for two years “two years is a long time. But in reality, above all when one is working, it’s no time at all. Anyone will tell you; it’s no time at all.” Hence with so little time available to the career person, and if, like Our Hero, they’re without the physical attractiveness that can announce one’s attributes immediately, what is left but the world of the commodified image? It resolves the problem of sexual frustration, but, and this is the psychiatrist’s point, leaves a further problem lurking behind it. It would sort of make sense that Our Hero would ask, when she suggests that his lack of sex is central to his despair, would she sleep with him? He’s so far removed from the social norms, of the (relatively) slow ritual towards enchanting another, that he feels he might as well just ask anyone. But as she replies, her job isn’t of course to provide the sex, but the social skills in which to pursue women. Our Hero however may well believe that the world is too co-modified for that, and basically all he can hope for is a quick hand-job or parlour visit in the middle of his busy schedule. Add a hectic work load, physical unattractiveness, rapidly diminishing social skills and the onset of clinical depression, and Our Hero looks like the unluckiest symptom of a culture obsessed with sex and money.
But at least, he might say, he doesn’t share the false sexual consciousness of his work colleague Tisserand who, though a twenty eight year old virgin, still acts as if sexual conquest is just around the corner. During one evening in a nightclub, Our Hero sits on the sidelines getting wasted while Tisserand boogies on the dance-floor, no matter the dismay, disgust or indifference of those he happens to dance with. Better, Our Hero, believes, to masturbate in the nightclub’s toilets than go through the charade of believing you have any chance on the dance-floor. This is confronting reality Houellebecq style: that it’s more realistic to disappear into the men’s room for a hand-job than pursue a real-life human encounter. So commodified has man become that, if he wants to live in a real world, the world of homo economicus, then he must have a consciousness that matches its expectations, no matter if this realistic consciousness results in a higher degree of solipsism and a retreat from inter-communicative exchanges.
Such a belief is in many ways the point of focus in Houellebecq’s follow-up novel, Atomised, where he contrasts two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno. Michel is physically attractive but has no real interest in sex and spends his life working on molecular biology and going to the supermarket. Bruno, on the other hand, so to speak, “jerked off at least three times a day.” He’s a libertine of sorts, but his physical unattractiveness and air of desperation leave him with few opportunities to practise that libertinism. Here Houellebecq works his deterministic narrative in such a manner that we’re left in little doubt that the best way forward would be “that humanity must disappear, that humanity would give way to a new species which was asexual and immortal, a species which had outgrown individuality, individuation and progress.” Michel’s research leads to a new breed in the film’s epilogue, “having broken the filial chain that linked us to humanity, we live on. Men consider us to be happy; it is certainly true that we have succeeded in overcoming the monstrous egotism, cruelty and anger which they could not; we live very different lives.”
Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the book offers up such a monstrous vision of humanity that its very eradication seems an act of huge optimism. There is no incremental amelioration in Houellebecq’s world; just a huge leap into scientific possibilities that in many ways negate the very purpose and existence of art. There is no sense of a technology of the self in Houellebecq, no sense that, in Foucault’s words, he believes in “techniques that permit individuals to effect, by their own means, a certain number of operations on their own bodies, their own souls, their own thoughts, their own conduct, and this in a manner so as to transform themselves, modify themselves, and to attain a certain state of perfection.” Instead Houellebecq is more give to technologies over technology of the self, and also the opposite of personal freedom: predestination. As he says in the Paris Review, “I tend to think that good and evil exist and that the quantity in each of us in unchangeable. The moral character of people is set, fixed until death. This resembles the Calvinist notion of predestination, in which people are born saved or damned.” Also, “I refuse to diverge from the scientific method or believe there is a truth beyond science.”
Thus what Houellebecq proposes is that economic man, sexually commodified, is man at the end of the line, without the freedom to choose, and might as well be handed over to science. He doesn’t see man as the master of his own fate, but caught in a certain time and incapable of doing much with it given man’s fixed condition. Now we could say not only is Houellebecq too deterministically suggesting man’s decline, but also that even if we accept that the human is generally economically driven, sexually frustrated and emotionally diminished, that the epoch still leaves other options, other ways in which we can choose to live. Sure, this attempt at personal ethics will prove immensely difficult in a society that cares little for acts of individual integrity, but that doesn’t mean they’re impossible, and what is interesting about Extension du Domain de la Lutte – even though it was co-written by Houellebecq and offers a voice over that allows much of the writer’s words to hit the screen intact – is that nevertheless the ending is changed.
And yet it’s an ending that lends itself to what we could call a conventional conservatism as opposed to the radical conservatism offered at the end of Atomised. Here the film seems to suggest the best hope for Our Hero resides in the Kantian possibility of living for another. “To destroy oneself”, wrote Kant, “expels that much morality from the world.” Our hero believes that for all the apparent naivety of the argument, it remained the only one. “Only our sense of duty keeps us alive. In concrete terms, if you want to have a useful duty, make another being’s happiness depend on your existence.” While the novel ends on a clear note of despair with Our Hero lost in the clinic; the film ends with Our Hero taking his chances at dance classes – the film ending on Our Hero’s dance with an attractive woman dwarfing him as they move, a smile of intrigue on her face.
If we call this a conventional conservatism we do so because, as Our Hero suggests, it has a naivety that is close to cliché, but it seems the only possibility Houellebecq can countenance short of the eradication of the human race altogether. And yet if there is no more than a tentative optimism in the film’s ending, it may reside in the human becoming so hopelessly commodified that the possibility of making another’s happiness dependent on oneself, presupposes the chance of getting another to depend upon us: even if we accept the idea, can we turn it into a reality? While there is something optimistic in the ending, there is also Our Hero’s sardonic take on Tisserand’s struggle. As he visits his co-workers’ graveside, shortly after Tisserand’s death in a car crash, Our Hero says, “Tisserand had fought to the end. The singles club, the ski trips. He never backed down, never gave up. Despite all his failures, he kept looking for love…” Our Hero offers these lines like they’re those of a monumental struggle – and perhaps, from a certain point of view, they are. As Houellebecq says in an intriguing remark: “I’d say that the question whether love still exists plays the same role in my novels as the question of God’s existence in Dostoyevsky.” (Paris Review)
Now what is simultaneously impressive and infuriating about Houellebecq’s vision of the world is the way it closes down the options. Certainly he captures the condition of man as economicus sexualis better than almost anybody, but the consequence is a narrow sociology that Houellebecq then expands outwards into a philosophy of life, and then expands outwards again to suggest that man has almost no options within this life. There is, to put it mildly, no technology of self available in his world, and it’s not surprising that any proponents of a self with options are dismissed. This may take the form of an attack on New Agers when the narrator in Atomized says, “even the occasional, sporadic interest which New Age devotees took in this or that belief or ‘ancient spiritual tradition’ was no more than proof of a profound, almost schizophrenic despair.” Or a sideswipe at Foucault and co: ‘the global ridicule inspired by the works of Foucault, Lacan, Derrida and Deleuze, after decades of reverence, far from leaving the field clear for new ideas, simply heaped contempt on all those who were active in ‘human sciences.’”
There is often in Houellebecq’s vision usually an ethical pessimism that can only be tempered by a degree of moral absolutism, or an escape from morality altogether by virtue of a scientific new (non hu-) man. In some ways this makes Houellebecq’s despair all the more problematic, because he is, if we think of Deleuze’s book on Francis Bacon, interested in much more the horror than the scream, in Bacon’s differentiation. What Deleuze means is that the horror is too representationally simple, while the scream is the undetectable despair, the despair that travels through us on a much more intangible level. “If we could express this as a dilemma, it would be: either I paint the horror and I do not paint the scream, because I make a figuration of the horrible, or else I paint the scream, and I do not paint the visible horror, I will paint the visible horror less and less, since the scream captures or detects an invisible force.” Houellebecq and the director Philippe Harel detect the horror maybe too graphically here and then try to assuage the scream with the Kantian notion of making another happy. Alternatively, as in Atomised, the horror is again presented only to be assuaged this time with scientific advances that solve a problem. In many ways this is the opposite of what Bacon proposes when he says “…One’s basic nature is totally without hope, and yet one’s nervous system is made out of optimistic stuff.” Where Houellebecq seems to think it’s our nervous system that makes us unhappy and wants it tempered by morality and science, Bacon sees the nervous system constantly searching for new possibilities on its own terms, and that are explored more complexly in contemporary French films In My Skin and La vie nouvelle
Extension… suggests the opposite of this complexity. Our nervous systems, lost to selfish needs, require either a complete re-think or a retreat into conventionality. If we remind ourselves of the Spinozan notion of what does a body want, Houellebecq insists what it wants can’t do us any good and must be ignored. The film addresses the problem, we could say, significantly yet flatly. Like a number of other French films in recent years – like Human Resources , Time Out, Fear and Trembling, Work Hard, Play Hard and, yes, In My Skin – there has been a fascination with work environments destroying something within oneself or in our relationships with others: something which illustrates that work, in the world of homo economicus, destroys a vital aspect of our freedom and identity and replaces it with…what? We might be reminded again of Our Hero’s comment that two years is no time at all when working. But should we not say that rather than man retreating into a Kantian care of another (that might be couched in relation to the workplace film as an orientation towards family), retreating from the planet altogether or, as in Houellebecq’s third novel, Platform, accepting suicide is the best option in a world full of despair after trying the Kantian care of another through his love for the now late Valerie, he should try and give his nervous system variety? That if, as Bacon proposes, the nervous system is optimistic but our basic nature is totally without hope, can we work hard at changing what has become our basic nature, what we could call our epochal self? Thus we need to see homo economicus as no more than a stage of man’s existence, and of merely one aspect of that stage instead of seeing man unavoidably trapped within an unremittingly predictable existence.
Maybe it’s true that Our Hero and Tisserand are deeply unhappy because Tisserand’s never been laid in his life and Our Hero’s going through a patch so dry his mental health is in danger. But is it the very lack of sex that is causing the problem, or is it the monomaniacal need to see themselves as worth nothing more than their status as a consumer for the world of economicus sexualis? When Our Hero reluctantly joins dance classes at the end of the film, there is still this idea that offering happiness to another must come through sexual relief. It’s pretty much the same happiness offered, briefly, in Houellebecq’s other books. In Atomised, Bruno finally gets a sexually vivid life going with Christiane before illness leaves her disabled, and then taking her own life. With Valerie, in Platform, there is again much happiness before she dies in a terrorist attack. In this type of look at anomie, the anatomical is about the only hope. As Houellebecq suggests in Atomised, “One of the most surprising things about physical love is the sense of intimacy it creates the moment there is any trace of mutual affection, Suddenly – even if you met the night before – you can confide things to your lover that you would not tell another living soul.”
In Houellebecq’s work, human inter-action functions most fruitfully through sexual intercourse, as though we huddle up with another against the harshness of the outside world, even if this warmth is temporary and finally removed. But could we say that the huge importance given to the couple in contemporary life lies in our status as increasingly atomised beings ripe for commodification, and that the couple is its ultimate manifestation rather than its opposite? Thus the couple will build a life together that becomes as readily commodifyingly sealing as emotionally enhancing, to the point that a couple may stay together because their joint income allows them to continue living in a very nice flat in a very nice part of an urban space. To split up wouldn’t just be an emotional loss, but a societal slide also. Combine the expectations of coupling up with a standard of living enhanced by that coupling, and we can see why a split carries connotations and reverberations far beyond the intricacies of the emotional self. And is this self not what Our Hero seems to have had in the past? As we see him flicking through pictures of his life with his ex we may also wonder whether his present misery lies not just in her absence, but also in his own present status living in a high rise flat. When he says he once had a life, what exactly does he mean by this?
There is then a very specific set of problems the film – and Houellebecq’s work generally – deals with, and they lie in the collapse of the social human emotionally, psychologically, sociologically and, yes, sexually. This is something the film addresses at the very beginning, saying “a few years ago Our Hero had, as they say, a “breakdown”. A dreadful lethargy crushed him for months. He saw the universe as a furtive gathering of elementary particles, a fleeting shape on the way to chaos.” This is the life of stuff, but there seems little between the elementary particles (the French title for Atomised is Les Particules elementaires), ) and the conventional social being, little sense that man can mould out of these elementary particles a being he can call his own. What we have on the one hand is a being of chance made out of molecules, and on the other a man of givens, making himself out of moral imperatives that are finally out-with his control both in terms of moral expectation (Kant’s idea is an ethical notion based not on variables available to the given situation, but on a general moral necessity), and on the need of another to situate one’s own happiness.
If we compare Extension… to a work consistent with Foucault’s technology of self, I’m Going Home, we can see that though both films are interested loosely in ‘decaying values’, Extension… moves towards the idea of being with another, whilst I’m Going Home seems to insist on the importance of the active decision made alone. The problem the sort of stoical position I’m Going Home works from, concerning being with another, is that of Seneca’s “Praise in him what can neither be given nor snatched away…” The problem with being for another is that this very much can be snatched away; it’s a precarious place in which to ground the self, and we might wonder whether much of Our Hero’s problem with being lies in a sort of being with another or nothingness, to paraphrase Sartre. Hell can thus very much be other people, if our being depends upon others so obviously for our mental health.
Now I’m Going Home opens with the sort of loss that Houellebecq’s narratives turn on: the loss of loved ones. In I’m Going Home it is aging actor Gilbert’s wife and daughter, but this is really just a pre-cursor towards Gilbert realizing through the narrative what decisions he can call his own. The demise of his wife and daughter are beyond stoical decision-making, and the film thus follows less his feelings of grief, than his tentative decisions in relation to his career. This of course doesn’t mean that loved ones are less important than his work, but what counts are the decisions one can make in one’s life. Central to Our Hero’s unhappiness is the sense that he cannot choose, but there is a feeling that this lack of choice isn’t about individual lack of will, but a societal malaise.
However, I’m Going Home also has societal malaise; so much that even so ethically vigilante an actor as Gilbert gets caught in an act of thespian compromise concerning an adaptation of Joyce’s Ullyses. But I’m Going Home still suggests that this has been a momentary error, however profoundly affecting, and that Gilbert very quickly rectifies it by dropping out of the role for which he’s obviously ill-suited. In Extension…, though, there is no sense that we are the masters of our own destiny, and even the idea of acting in good faith in Houellbecq carries an air of bad faith. To act in good conscience, to eat well, say, to exercise, to seek out an individual happiness, would in Houellebecq’s world not be bonne conscience but if anything false consciousness. Why pretend your reality is any better than it is, why pretend that the world isn’t constantly being polluted, our interactions constantly sullied by compromises, and our countries run by charlatans, might be the mantra. It is there to some degree in the aforementioned scene when the ‘realist’ Our Hero goes off to the toilet and masturbates. Accept one’s limitations, and that of the world’s, and if you’re lucky you may find someone to whom you can couple up and that will shelter you from the harshness outside, but don’t bank on it. In fact don’t even expect it: have your hand to hand.
Houellebecq’s, then, is a narrow realism. It’s one that insists we live not according to our possibilities, but from a nervous system that’s the opposite of Bacon’s: a nervous system of habit, motivated by basic drives and satiated by alcohol, fags and pills. When at the beginning of the film Our Hero attends a work colleague’s party, he says as usual nothing happened, but what we see is our hero spending his time drinking and smoking and looking out of the window. He’s the self-fulfilling prophet of despair, who seems like he’s unwilling to create any positive energy because it would fly in the face of the despondent identity he’s created for himself. To begin to love life, even to work less from habit than a nervous excitation beyond the sexual, would demand a possible existence and not a probable one.
Our Hero’s notion of realism couldn’t countenance such new options because there is something in his identity, just as he believes there is something in the culture, so despairingly there, so unmalleable, that he can’t see any alternatives. Now it is this which gives the film much of its comic energy at the very same time that it robs it of its probing purpose. We accept the unlikelihood of change, or at best the minimal amount of change attending a dance class might provide, and try instead of changing ourselves and the world, master the correct tone in which to live in it. So central to the film, and generally to Houellebecq’s universe, is tone: hence the importance of comic fatalism over ‘intervalistic’ stoicism. In the latter we may have a gap between the social expectation and the individual decision that creates an interval, a space for thinking through a decision before acting upon it, and this suggests personal freedom. But in Houellbecq we instead have not the intervalistic but the comic, so any space created won’t so much allow the person to act freely, but to adopt the right comic tone for the inevitable action. Thus it’s seen as pretty much inevitable that neither Our Hero nor Tisserand will get laid when they go off to a nightclub on Christmas Eve. But where Tisserand boogies on the dance floor hoping to pull; Our Hero of course sits and watches, well aware that nothing could conceivably happen anyway. Hence his comic fatalism, as he waits for Tisserand to fail once again.
We could even say that it’s on the issue of Our Hero’s fatalism that the film’s main narrative event turns. Our Hero insists that Tisserand should forget about women. Even if he were to sleep with an attractive woman, Our Hero insists that all the sexual failures in his life leading up to that point would inevitably impact on any subsequent relationship: “you’re orphaned by the teenage loves you never had,” Our Hero insists. What he should do is take up a life as a murderer: “when you have those women trembling with your knife, begging you for their youth, you’ll be their master.” The comic is in danger of toppling of into the tragic because Tisserand lacks Our Hero’s indifference. Usually he has to act in the world, no matter how incompetently. Of course Tisserand finally can’t go ahead with Our Hero’s proposal, but he gets close enough, going down to the beach where a couple make love, and then backing away at the last minute. He decides to drive back to Paris, probably still quite drunk, and crashes the car whilst trying to answer a call from Our Hero.
As with other deaths, illnesses and accidents in Houellebecq’s work there is a cruel inevitability. Tisserand’s death resembles Bruno’s lover Christiane’s cancer and then suicide in Atomised, or Valerie’s death at the hands of terrorists in Platform. But again Houellebecq’s interest lies in fatalism. As the narrator says in Atomised: ‘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. This weighing up of pleasure and pain, which, sooner or later, everyone is forced to make, leads, logically, to suicide.” Houellebecq then insists, “On the subject it’s amusing to note that two highly respected fin–de–siécle intellectuals, Gilles Deleuze and Guy Debord, both committed suicide for no reason other than that they could not bear the idea of their own physical decline.” Whether or not Deleuze took his own life because of the idea of his own physical decline, or the reality and pain of that decline, doesn’t of course finally interest Houellebecq: what matters is the notion of amusement attached to inevitability. In Houellebecq’s world perspective doesn’t lead to the possibility of change, but the fatalistic realisation of one’s limitations, of our puny existence.
This is a particular type of abjection, a type absent from the other abject films released around the same time: Romance, Pola X, The Piano Teacher, In My Skin and La vie Nouvelle (the abject film to which it’s closest is the deeper and darker Seul contre tous). Extension… offers instead a comic abjection that demands we accept our minimal options, but that we have the good sense to create a perspective that doesn’t pretend we can change the world, but that we at least can be self-mockingly wise to our fate. If we’re impressed yet sceptical about Houellebecq’s vision (and it is a vision), it lies in his too ready acceptance of economic man and sexual man barely able to alter his fate, and working out of this dead-beat philosophical perspective a deadpan comic tone. Houellebecq may believe that the false consciousness lies in the New Agers and post-structuralist philosophers who reckon they can change their lives and subsequently the world, but is there not a greater false consciousness in accepting one’s existence inevitably and believing one can’t alter the world at all? Houellebecq suggests that all we can do is live in a state of comic abjection unless we’re lucky enough to find conventional love to protect us from the wider cruelty, or hope for a future scientifically advanced stage that will banish much of this wilder cruelty from our lives. But will it not also remove the choice to be kind or cruel from our existence? These are the sort of ethical questions one feels Houellebecq can’t quite entertain, as if ethics itself might be a more absurd form of false consciousness than any. But if anomie meets anatomy here, is it not finally because Houellebecq trusts so much in the latter that it leads inevitably to the former?