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 emotionallydesiccated 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 utterlydepressive 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 avoidthe 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, asthe 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 itsdevastating 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 theintelligent 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-knowntroubles 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...