Les particules elementaires, Michel Houellebecq's bestseller from 1998 which triggered a large debate all around Europe, and now finally available in English, is the story of radical DESUBLIMATION, if there ever was one. Bruno, a high-school teacher, is an undersexed hedonist, while Michel, his half-brother, is a brilliant but emotionally desiccated biochemist. Abandoned by their hippie mother when they were small, neither has ever properly recovered; all their attempts at the pursuit of happiness, whether through marriage, the study of philosophy, or the consumption of pornography, merely lead to loneliness and frustration. Bruno ends up in a psychiatric asylum after confronting the meaninglessness of the permissive sexuality (the utterly depressive descriptions of the sexual orgies between forty-somethings are among the most excruciating readings in contemporary literature), while Michel invents a solution: a new self-replicating gene for the post-human desexualized entity. The novel ends with a prophetic vision: in 2040, humanity collectively decides to replace itself with genetically modified asexual humanoids in order to avoid the deadlock of sexuality - these humanoids experience no passions proper, no intense self-assertion that can lead to destructive rage.
Almost four decades ago, Michel Foucault dismissed "man" as a figure in the sand that is now being washed away, introducing the (then) fashionable topic of the "death of man." Although Houellebecq stages this disappearance in much more naive literal terms, as the replacement of humanity with a new post-human species, there is a common denominator between the two: the disappearance of sexual difference. In his last works, Foucault envisioned the space of pleasures liberated from Sex, and one is tempted to claim that Houellebecq's post-human society of clones is the realization of the Foucauldian dream of the Selves who practice the "use of pleasures." While this solution is the fantasy at its purest, the deadlock to which it reacts is a real one: in our postmodern "disenchanted" permissive world, the unconstrained sexuality is reduced to an apathetic participation in collective orgies depicted in Les particules - the constitutive impasse of the sexual relationship (Jacques Lacan's il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel) seems to reach here its devastating apex.
We all know of Alan Turing's famous "imitation game" which should serve as the test if a machine can think: we communicate with two computer interfaces, asking them any imaginable question; behind one of the interfaces, there is a human person typing the answers, while behind the other, it is a machine. If, based on the answers we get, we cannot tell the intelligent machine from the intelligent human, then, according to Turing, our failure proves that machines can think. - What is a little bit less known is that in its first formulation, the issue was not to distinguish human from the machine, but man from woman. Why this strange displacement from sexual difference to the difference between human and machine? Was this due to Turing's simple eccentricity (recall his well-known troubles because of his homosexuality)? According to some interpreters, the point is to oppose the two experiments: a successful imitation of a woman's responses by a man (or vice versa) would not prove anything, because the gender identity does not depend on the sequences of symbols, while a successful imitation of man by a machine would prove that this machine thinks, because "thinking" ultimately is the proper way of sequencing symbols... What if, however, the solution to this enigma is much more simple and radical? What if sexual difference is not simply a biological fact, but the Real of an antagonism that defines humanity, so that once sexual difference is abolished, a human being effectively becomes indistinguishable from a machine.
Perhaps the best way to specify this role of sexual love is through the notion of reflexivity as "the movement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is made, through a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates." This appearance of the generating movement within the generated system as a rule takes the form of its opposite; say, in the later stage of a revolutionary process when Revolution starts to devour its own children, the political agent which effectively set in motion the process is renegated into the role of its main obstacle, of the waverers or outright traitors who are not ready to follow the revolutionary logic to its conclusion. Along the same lines, is it not that, once the socio-symbolic order is fully established, the very dimension which introduced the "transcendent" attitude that defines a human being, namely SEXUALITY, the uniquely human sexual passion, appears as its very opposite, as the main OBSTACLE to the elevation of a human being to the pure spirituality, as that which ties him/her down to the inertia of bodily existence? For this reason, the end of sexuality in the much celebrated "posthuman" self-cloning entity expected to emerge soon, far from opening up the way to pure spirituality, will simultaneously signal the end of what is traditionally designated as the uniquely human spiritual transcendence. All the celebrating of the new "enhanced" possibilities of sexual life that Virtual Reality offers cannot conceal the fact that, once cloning supplements sexual difference, the game is over.
And, incidentally, with all the focus on the new experiences of pleasure that lay ahead with the development of Virtual Reality, direct neuronal implants, etc., what about new "enhanced" possibilities of TORTURE? Do biogenetics and Virtual Reality combined not open up new and unheard-of horizons of extending our ability to endure pain (through widening our sensory capacity to sustain pain, through inventing new forms of inflicting it) - perhaps, the ultimate Sadean image on an "undead" victim of the torture who can sustain endless pain without having at his/her disposal the escape into death, also waits to become reality? Perhaps, in a decade or two, our most horrifying cases of torture (say, what they did to the Chief-of-Staff of the Dominican Army after the failed coup in which the dictator Trujillo was killed - sewing his eyes together so that he wasn't able to see his torturers, and then for four months slowly cutting off parts of his body in most painful ways, like using clumsy scissors to detach his genitals) will appear as naive children's games.
The paradox - or, rather, the antinomy - of the cyberspace reason concerns precisely the fate of the body. Even advocates of cyberspace warn us that we should not totally forget our body, that we should maintain our anchoring in the "real life" by returning, regularly, from our immersion in cyberspace to the intense experience of our body, from sex to jogging. We will never turn ourselves into virtual entities freely floating from one to another virtual universe: our "real life" body and its mortality is the ultimate horizon of our existence, the ultimate, innermost impossibility that underpins the immersion in all possible multiple virtual universes. Yet, at the same time, in cyberspace the body returns with a vengeance: in popular perception, "cyberspace IS hardcore pornography," i.e. hardcore pornography is perceived as the predominant use of cyberspace. The literal "enlightenment," the "lightness of being," the relief/alleviation we feel when we freely float in cyberspace (or, even more, in Virtual Reality), is not the experience of being bodyless, but the experience of possessing another - aetheric, virtual, weightless - body, a body which does not confine us to the inert materiality and finitude, an angelic spectral body, a body which can be artificially recreated and manipulated. Cyberspace thus designates a turn, a kind of "negation of negation," in the gradual progress towards the disembodying of our experience (first writing instead of the "living" speech, then press, then the mass media, then radio, then TV): in cyberspace, we return to the bodily immediacy, but to an uncanny, virtual immediacy. In this sense, the claim that cyberspace contains a Gnostic dimension is fully justified: the most concise definition of Gnosticism is precisely that it is a kind of spiritualized materialism: its topic is not directly the higher, purely notional, reality, but a "higher" BODILY reality, a proto-reality of shadowy ghosts and undead entities.
This notion that we are entering a new era in which humanity will leave behind the inertia of the material bodies, was nicely rendered by Konrad Lorenz's somewhat ambiguous remark that we ourselves (the "actually existing" humanity) are the sought-after "missing link" between animal and man. Of course, the first association that imposes itself here is the notion that the "actually existing" humanity still dwells in what Marx designated as "pre-history," and that the true human history will begin with the advent of the Communist society; or, in Nietzsche's terms, that man is just a bridge, a passage between animal and overman. What Lorenz "meant" was undoubtedly situated along these lines, although with a more humanistic twist: humanity is still immature and barbarian, it did not yet reach the full wisdom. However, an opposite reading also imposes itself: the human being IS in its very essence a "passage," the finite opens into an abyss.
The ongoing decoding of the human body, the prospect of the formulation of each individual's genome, confronts us in a pressing way with the radical question of "what we are": am I that, the code that can be compressed onto a single CD? Are we "nobody and nothing," just an illusion of self-awareness whose only reality is the complex interacting network of neuronal and other links? The uncanny feeling generated by playing with toys like tamagochi concerns the fact that we treat a virtual non-entity as an entity: we act "as if" (we believe that) there is, behind the screen, a real Self, an animal reacting to our signals, although we know well that there is nothing and nobody "behind," just the digital circuitry. However, what is even more disturbing is the implicit reflexive reversal of this insight: if there is effectively no one out there, behind the screen, what if the same goes for myself? What if the "I," my self-awareness, is also merely a superficial "screen" behind which there is only a "blind" complex neuronal circuit? Or, to make the same point from a different perspective: why are people so afraid of the air crash? It's not the physical pain as such - what causes such horror are the two or three minutes while the plane is falling down and one is fully aware that one will die shortly. Does the genome identification not transpose all of us into a similar situation? That is to say, the uncanny aspect of the genome identification concerns the temporal gap which separates the knowledge about what causes a certain disease from the development of the technical means to intervene and prevent this disease from evolving - the period of time in which we shall know for sure that, say, we are about to get a dangerous cancer, but will be unable to do anything to prevent it. And what about "objectively" reading our IQ or the genetic ability for other intellectual capacities? How will the awareness of this total self-objectivization affect our self-experience? The standard answer (the knowledge of our genome will enable us to intervene into our genome and change for the better our psychic and bodily properties) still begs the crucial question: if the self-objectivization is complete, who is the "I" who intervenes into "its own" genetic code in order to change it? Is this intervention itself not already objectivized in the totally scanned brain?
The "closure" anticipated by the prospect of the total scanning of the human brain does not reside only in the full correlation between the scanned neuronal activity in our brain and our subjective experience (so that a scientist will be able to give an impulse to our brain and then predict to what subjective experience this impulsive will give rise), but in the much more radical notion of bypassing the very subjective experience: what will be possible to identify through scanning will be DIRECTLY our subjective experience, so that the scientist will not even have to ask us what we experience - he will be able to READ IMMEDIATELY on his screen what we experience. (There is a further proof which points in the same direction: a couple of milliseconds before a human subject "freely" decides in a situation of choice, scanners can detect the change in the brain's chemical processes which indicates that the decision was already taken - even when we make a free decision, our consciousness seems just to register an anterior chemical process... The psychoanalytic-Schellingian answer to it is to locate freedom (of choice) at the unconscious level: the true acts of freedom are choices/decisions which we make while unaware of it - we never decide (in the present tense); all of a sudden, we just take note of how we have already decided.) On the other hand, one can argue that such a dystopian prospect involves the loop of a petitio principii: it silently presupposes that the same old Self which phenomenologically relies on the gap between "myself" and the objects "out there" will continue to be here after the completed self-objectivization.
The paradox, of course, is that this total self-objectivization overlaps with its opposite: what looms at the horizon of the "digital revolution" is nothing else than the prospect that human beings will acquire the capacity of what Kant and other German Idealists called "intellectual intuition /intellektuelle Anschauung/," the closure of the gap that separates (passive) intuition and (active) production, i.e. the intuition which immediately generates the object it perceives - the capacity hitherto reserved for the infinite divine mind. On the one hand, it will be possible, through neurological implants, to switch from our "common" reality to another computer-generated reality without all the clumsy machinery of today's Virtual Reality (the awkward glasses, gloves...), since the signals of the virtual reality will directly reach our brain, bypassing our sensory organs:
"Your neural implants will provide the simulated sensory inputs of the virtual environment - and your virtual body - directly in your brain. /.../ A typical 'web site' will be a perceived virtual environment, with no external hardware required. You 'go there' by mentally selecting the site and then entering that world."
On the other hand, there is the complementary notion of the "Real Virtual Reality": through "nanobots" (billions of self-organizing, intelligent micro-robots), it will be possible to recreate the three-dimensional image of different realities "out there" for our "real" senses to see and enter it (the so-called "Utility Fog"). Significantly, these two opposite versions of the full virtualization of our experience of reality (direct neuronal implants versus the "Utility Fog") mirror the difference of subjective and objective: with the "Utility Fog," we still relate to the reality outside ourselves through our sensory experience, while the neuronal implants effectively reduce us to "brains in the vat," cutting us off from any direct perception of reality - in other words, in the first case, we "really" perceive a simulacrum of reality, while in the second case, perception itself if simulated through direct neuronal implants. However, in both cases, we reach a kind of omnipotence, being able to change from one to another reality by the mere power of our thoughts - to transform our bodies, the bodies of our partners, etc.etc.: "With this technology, you will be able to have almost any kind of experience with just about anyone, real or imagined, at any time." The question to be asked here is: will this still be experienced as "reality"? Is not, for a human being, "reality" ONTOLOGICALLY defined through the minimum of RESISTANCE - real is that which resists, that which is not totally malleable to the caprices of our imagination?
As to the obvious counter-question: "However, everything cannot be virtualized - there still has to be the one 'real reality,' that of the digital or biogenetic circuitry itself which generates the very multiplicity of virtual universes!", the answer is provided by the prospect of "downloading" the entire human brain (once it will be possible to scan it completely) onto an electronic machine more efficient than our awkward brains. At this crucial moment, a human being will change its ontological status "from hardware to software": it will no longer be identified with (stuck to) its material bearer (the brain in the human body). The identity of our Self is a certain neuronal pattern, the network of waves, which, in principle, can be transferred from one to another material support. Of course, there is no "pure mind," i.e. there always has to be some kind of embodiment - however, if our mind is a software pattern, it should be in principle possible for it to shift from one to another material support (is this not going on all the time at a different level: is the "stuff" our cells are made of not continuously changing?). The idea is that this cutting off of the umbilical cord that links us to a single body, this shift from having (and being stuck to) a body to freely floating between different embodiments will mark the true birth of the human being, relegating the entire hitherto history of humanity to the status of a confused period of transition from the animal kingdom to the true kingdom of the mind.
Here, however, philosophical-existential enigmas emerge again, and we are back at the Leibnizian problem of the identity of the indiscernibles: if (the pattern of) my brain is loaded onto a different material support, which of the two minds is "myself"? In what does the identity of "myself" consist, if it resides neither in the material support (which changes all the time) nor in the formal pattern (which can be exactly replicated)? - No wonder that Leibniz is one of the predominant philosophical references of the cyberspace theorists: what reverberates today is not only his dream of a universal computing machine, but the uncanny resemblance between his ontological vision of monadology and today's emerging cyberspace community in which global harmony and solipsism strangely coexist. That is to say, does our immersion into cyberspace not go hand in hand with our reduction to a Leibnizean monad which, although "without windows" that would directly open up to external reality, mirrors in itself the entire universe? Are we not more and more monads with no direct windows onto reality, interacting alone with the PC screen, encountering only the virtual simulacra, and yet immersed more than ever into the global network, synchronously communicating with the entire globe? The impasse which Leibniz tried to solve by way of introducing the notion of the "preestablished harmony" between the monads, guaranteed by God Himself, the supreme, all-encompassing monad, repeats itself today, in the guise of the problem of communication: how does each of us know that s/he is in touch with the "real other" behind the screen, not only with spectral simulacra?
More radically even, what about the obvious Heideggerian counter-thesis that the notion of the "brain in the vat" on which this entire scenario relies, involves an ontological mistake: what accounts for the specific human dimension is not a property or pattern of the brain, but the way a human being is situated in his/her world and ex-statically relates to the things in it; language is not the relationship between an object (word) and another object (thing or thought) in the world, but the site of the historically determinate disclosure of the world-horizon as such... To this, one is tempted to give a cynical outright answer: OK, so what? With the immersion into Virtual Reality, we will effectively be deprived of the ex-static being-in-the-world that pertains to the human finitude - but what if this loss will open up to us another, unheard-of, dimension of spirituality?
Does, then, the full formulation of the genome effectively foreclose subjectivity and/or sexual difference? When, on June 26 2000, the completion of a "working draft" of the human genome was publicly announced, the wave of commentaries about the ethical, medical, etc. consequences of this breakthrough rendered manifest the first paradox of genome, the immediate identity of the opposite attitudes: on the one hand, the idea is that we can now formulate the very positive identity of a human being, what s/he "objectively is," what predetermines his/her development; on the other hand, knowing the complete genome - the "instruction book for human life," as it is usually referred to - opens up the way for the technological manipulation, enabling us to "reprogram" our (or, rather, others's) bodily and psychic features. This new situation seems to signal the end of the whole series of traditional notions: theological creationism (comparing human with animal genomes makes clear that human beings evolved from animals - we share more than 99 percent of our genome with the chimpanzee), sexual reproduction (rendered superfluous by the prospect of cloning), and, ultimately, psychology or psychoanalysis - does genome not realize Freud's old dream of translating psychic processes into objective chemical processes?
Here, however, one should be attentive to the formulation which repeatedly occurs in most of the reactions to the identification of the genome: "The old adage that every disease with the exception of trauma has a genetic component is really going to be true." Although this statement is meant as the assertion of a triumph, one should nonetheless focus on the exception that it concedes, the impact of a trauma. How serious and extensive is this limitation? The first thing to bear in mind here is that "trauma" is NOT simply a shorthand term for the unpredictable chaotic wealth of environment influences, so that we are lead to the standard proposition according to which the identity of a human being results from the interaction between his/her genetic inheritance and the influence of his/her environment ("nature versus nurture"). It is also not sufficient to replace this standard proposition with the more refined notion of the "embodied mind" developed by Francisco Varela: a human being is not just the outcome of the interaction between genes and environment as the two opposed entities; s/he is rather the engaged embodied agent who, instead of "relating" to his/her environs, mediates-creates his/her life-world - a bird lives in a different environment than a fish or a man... However, "trauma" designates a shocking encounter which, precisely, DISTURBS this immersion into one's life-world, a violent intrusion of something which doesn't fit it. Of course, animals can also experience traumatic ruptures: say, is the ants' universe not thrown off the rails when a human intervention totally subverts their environs? However, the difference between animals and men is crucial here: for animals, such traumatic ruptures are the exception, they are experienced as a catastrophe which ruins their way of life; for humans, on the contrary, the traumatic encounter is a universal condition, the intrusion which sets in motion the process of "becoming human." Man is not simply overwhelmed by the impact of the traumatic encounter - as Hegel put it, s/he is able to "tarry with the negative," to counteract its destabilizing impact by spinning out intricate symbolic cobwebs. This is the lesson of both psychoanalysis and the Jewish-Christian tradition: the specific human vocation does not rely on the development of man's inherent potentials (on the awakening of the dormant spiritual forces OR of some genetic program); it is triggered by an external traumatic encounter, by the encounter of the Other's desire in its impenetrability. In other words (and pace Steve Pinker), there is no inborn "language instinct": there are, of course, genetic conditions that have to be met if a living being is to be able to speak; however, one actually starts to speak, one enters the symbolic universe, only in reacting to a traumatic jolt - and the mode of this reacting, i.e. the fact that, in order to cope with a trauma, we symbolize, is NOT "in our genes."
- ↑ N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1999, p. 8.
- ↑ It is, of course, the work of Daniel Dennett which popularized this version of the "selfless" mind - see Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, New York: Little, Brown and Company 1991.
- ↑ See Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, London: Phoenix 1999, p. 182.
- ↑ Op.cit., p. 183.
- ↑ Op.cit., p. 188.
- ↑ Maimon Cohen, Director of the Harvey Institute for Human Genetics at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, quoted in International Herald Tribune, June 27, 2000, p. 8.
- ↑ See Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind, Cambridge: MIT Press 1993.
- ↑ See Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, New York: Harper Books 1995.