Perception and Theory
Everything starts from the physical world. Our perception of it shapes our philosophies, our concepts, our way of positioning ourselves in the world. We have grown to believe in the old hierarchical fallacy – a useful paideic concept though it certainly was. But physical reality hits us in the face: We no longer look at organisms made of cells, made of atoms, made of whatever elementary particles we have so ardently hoped to identify. Latest tendencies in physics propose a different outlook. Not a hierarchical one – going down from complex to simple, from molecule to atom and further still until the building blocks that make up the physical reality are identified – but a model that aims to grasp the interrelations between various forms of matter organization. There are no ultimate constituents of matter, physicists claim. There are no elementary particles. (See e.g.http://paginas.terra.com.br/educacao/jtesheiner/etcetera/davidbohmandgeoffreychew.htm)
How is this going to affect the way we look at the world? Will this influence the way we shape out theories as means of internalizing the outside or understanding our mental space? The passages that follow will provide a tentative answer, as well as a look at the way in which literature echoes the transition from a hierarchical universe to one based on interconnections.
More than once we have used the physical reality around to create our theories, to draw our metaphors from. We have populated our mental space with trees and pyramids, charts and branches that are obviously inspired from forms and things we encounter in nature. Once again we feel tempted to do so with the network metaphor. Inspired from, but more complex than the web one, the network metaphor acknowledges the mutual dependence – objectified as links and communication – between the elements caught in it or making it up.
As long as we have looked at the physical world through A hierarchical lens, it made sense to regard the mental space as being structured hierarchically, with some theories or concepts taking primacy over some others. Nevertheless, once the impossibility of establishing or isolating elementary particles is acknowledged and internalized, any attempt to establish the ascendance of a theory or concept over another becomes futile. Consequently, theories, models or concepts are seen in their interconnectedness rather than in their order of importance. Refusal to endorse interconnectivity renders a theory or a system less creative, less intuitive, and potentially dangerous. This is a lesson that the twentieth century had to learn the hard way: not only that metanarratives are doomed to failure, but that any outlook that claims to be the only valid one – and refuses to relate to other way of conceptualizing the world – breeds pestilence, suffering and death. The opposite endeavor of integrating concurrent theories and establishing connections has gained more and more ground lately. The scientific model corresponding to this tendency is the bootstrapping one, whereas, in theory and art, a trend arguably foreshadowed by romantic Blake and which I dare to call metamodern seems to be emerging.
Niche Thinking …
Not the province of the twentieth century to be sure, the simple truth that niche thinking is not only intellectually stifling, but also endangers everything that comes near it, was vocally advocated by William Blake (1757-1827). He could not contain his anger at the cruelties perpetrated on Albion’s shore in the wake of the French Revolution, when young people, almost children, were put to death in the name of a dogma or a regime.
A poem about a child whose unacceptable boldness of thinking for himself proves fatal, Blake’s ‘A Little Boy Lost’ encapsulates a metaphor for conceptualizing or approximating the world order in ways different from the main stream one(s):
Nor venerates another so,
Nor is it possible to Thought
A greater than itself to know:
Or any of my brothers more?
I love you like the little bird
That picks up crumbs around the door.’
In trembling zeal he seized his hair,
He led him by his little coat,
And all admired the Priestly care.
And standing on the altar high,
‘Lo, what a fiend is here! said he:
‘One who sets reason up for judge
Of our most holy mystery.’
The weeping child could not be heard,
The weeping parents wept in vain:
They stripped him to his little shirt,
And bound him in an iron chain,
And burned him in a holy place
Where many had been burned before;
The weeping parents wept in vain.
Are such things done on Albion’s shore.
These perspectival shifts and the child’s ability to relate vertically – across levels of existence – and horizontally, with his parents and fellow sufferers at the hands of human injustice, makes one think that, as opposed to the priest’s niche thinking, the narrator of the poem’s events cherishes a relational type of thinking. Such a way of looking at the world places the priest’s inflexible dogmatism in a loop: a mere accident in a relational universe. This dogmatic dead-end street stands for a malign appendix on the way of one’s effort to conceptualize the world. Comparing the published versions with the notebook poem (containing the text alone, with no illustration) yields further insights into the nature of evil bred by niche thinking and the dangers it poses for any concurrent ways of conceptualizing the world. In the illuminated poem, characters bending in mourning evoke images of closure. The blood red (in copy C) or orange (in copy W) flames on the left mirror bat-like angular green (in copy C) or blue (in copy W) shapes on the right. Bat wings usually evoke the covering cherub, and thus, the impersonation of evil, which is, quite often with Blake, a priest. Priests are evil with him specifically because they seem unable to relate to ways of conceptualizing the world different from his own. (For a comparative look at various copies see www.blakearchive.org).
A similarly troubling rendering of the catastrophic effects exclusive theories have is that of Ernst Jünger’s 1977 novel, in which the highly organized space of Eumeswil is laid barren with the disappearance of the ones claiming to be the guardians of the only valid philosophy. Noteworthy is the fact that barrenness seems to shift from peripheries during the Condor’s rule to the centre after his leaving, that is, from the surrounding islands, to the very heart of Eumeswil. This is an instance of the periphery usurping the center and a memento as to the fact that the only systems which may survive the trial of time are those that do not ignore the secondary, but, on the contrary, relate to it in fruitful ways, and acknowledge its ability to fertilize the primary (cf. Nemoianu 1989). This would mean, in an ideal world, engaging in informed dialogue with the other and establishing connections between the centre and various points on the periphery. Failure to do so proves fatal inEumeswil and, later on, in contemporary fiction such as Houellebecq’s Plateforme (2002) and Les particules élémentaires (1998).
Pinpointing the dangers of niche thinking or niche theories – which either simply ignore, or, in more severe cases, aim to usurp other systems – this essay explores the complementary approach of connectionist thinking and the fruitfulness of the model emerging from it. Positing metamodernism as a period term and a cultural phenomenon, partly concurring with (post)modernism, partly emerging from it and as a reaction to it (especially to its fragmentarism, individualism, excessive analyticity, and extreme specialization), I shall also attempt to outline several features of metamodernism as a budding cultural paradigm. Allowing for diverging theories, metamodernism champions the idea that only in their interconnection and continuous revision lie the possibility of grasping the nature of contemporary cultural and literary phenomena. Thus, it may be conceptualized in relation not with the map metaphor, a favorite with Jorge Luis Borges (1889-1986), but as a set of maps under continuous revision.
Borges’ map (1997) which tends towards extreme accuracy – until it grows as big as the world itself – is, undoubtedly, a very fit metaphor for the postmodern space characterized by extreme specialization, attention to detail, preeminence of analysis over synthesis, and of fragments over unity. In Borges’ elaborated cartography metaphor, there is a feeling as to the futility of all things taken to extremes, excessive specialization and rationalization most notably. It is, obviously, an obituary for dying postmodernism as an all-encompassing sole explanatory paradigm of thought or framework. Nevertheless, much like Borges’ map which proves somehow useful, although not for the purpose it has been created, even apparently hopeless and hapless postmodernism does not eventually turn completely worthless: it certainly survives as a possible theory or a world outlook, but which needs to relate with alternative paradigms.
Thus, as opposed to the postmodern accurate map grown until cumbersome, the metamodern space may be represented as a set of maps under continuous revision, each map of the set focussing not only on accurate representation, but also on pinpointing connections between various points of reference. Another fit metaphor may be that of a boat being built or repaired as it sails, or a palace or house under continuous construction.
The Principle of Theory Overlapping
Late modernism (Petrescu 1998: 138-9) acknowledged the complexity of reality and the inability of any scientific model to explain it in ways exhaustive and non-contradictory. Despite attempts at coining all-encompassing theories, the fact that reality cannot be completely described by means of a single theory or paradigm has become more and more obvious. The view regarding the inability of a theory to explain all aspects of a domain of investigation is further strengthened from the perspective of a contemporary observer, for whom reality appears as inherently contradictory. And it is specifically contradictions that theories wish to avoid or rule out, for the implicit or explicit aim of any explanation is to provide a non-contradictory coherent model of reality.
As one reflects on the system of cultural and artistic ideas, the tendencies, theories, models or paradigms at work in the vast domain of culture, (s)he cannot help noticing that they are far from being non-contradictory. It is at this point that we realize the need for a conceptual framework that would accommodate diverging theories. The principle of theory overlapping states that the theories pertaining to a specific domain (or aspect of one such domain) need not be consistent or non-contradictory with one another in order to be considered as parts of a system. There may be aspects in which their explanations are complementary, and even contradict one another. A principle of complementarity, similar to the (homonymous) principle in quantum physics, seems to be at work in such a system. One cannot help recalling at this point Blake’s famed adage identifying contraries as a vital engine that keeps the world spinning and developing: ‘Without Contraries is no Progression’, the narrative voice would proclaim in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Needless to say, such principles and the related connectionist model cannot be considered as pertaining to mainstream Western philosophy since the Enlightenment. Quite evidently, they challenge much of René Descartes’ (1596 – 1650) legacy. The Cartesian partition between res cogitans and res extensa, i.e. between the I, God and the world, between soul and body – may be placed at the source of all tendencies to separate and analyze in order to understand. Heisenberg (1958) believed that this Cartesian division has permeated human consciousness so profoundly that quite a time will lapse before its replacement by a more flexible and refined model. The model Heisenberg envisaged would be one based not on dichotomies and analysis, but on complexity and interconnection. Imported from the fields of physics and artificial intelligence, the bootstrap model (Capra 1988) sketched below seems a worthy competitor for the analytical one based on Cartesian division, and a model that the awareness as to the complexity of the contemporary condition demands.
The Bootstrap Model
We lack the conceptual means […] to straighten out the convoluted and straggly picture, to
conjure up a cohesive model from the confused and incoherent experience, to string together the
scattered beads of events (Ignacio Ramone, quoted in Baumann 1997: 199).
If we consider the system of theories, paradigms, and trends, the bootstrap model would express the correlation and fundamental interdependence between these cultural phenomena and, thus, reveal the intrinsically dynamic nature of cultural reality as emerging from their interconnections.
The components of the bootstrap model are linked or interwoven in a network that indicates the connections between theories, paradigms, or cultural trends. Thus different theories may be simultaneously relevant for an issue considered. To put it another way: several theories regarding the same issue(s) can co-exist, their interplay pointing to the complex nature of the phenomena considered. For example, if we wish to understand and conceptualize the nature of cultural phenomena in the late twentieth century, we may note that the theoretical tools of postmodernism may be useful to a point only, leaving some aspects that would not be subsumable to the postmodern label. These aspects may be best understood in the light of another model that can be named metamodern. Postmodernism, for example, acknowledged the existence of peripheral outlooks, but a certain tendency towards integration of diverse points of view and of placing them in fertile dialogue, surpasses postmodernism. Whereas fragmentarism characterises postmodernism, integration is a feature of metamodernism. However, postmodernism and metamodernism are not mutually exclusive.
Within the bootstrap model, links and relationships are considered as being the most appropriate ways of describing reality. Therefore, the most apt language would be that of connections. It goes without saying that the bootstrap model is consistent with the No Free Lunch Conjecture.
Stating that there is no such thing as a best theory for accounting for all aspects of a phenomenon, the ‘no free lunch conjecture’ underlines the need for a model that would accommodate and establish connection between existing theories. Such a model is the bootstrap one. Extrapolating from the No Free Lunch Conjecture, we can say that there is no such thing as a best paradigm for explaining all aspects of a cultural or literary reality. Within such a framework the staunchest supporters or arbiters of postmodernism may find it hard not to accept the existence of alternative theories meant to account for contemporary cultural and literary phenomena. One such paradigm is metamodernism.
Such a model of simultaneously accepted theories stands as an answer to contemporaryrelativism. Instead of abandoning any explanation or by-passing any significant or main issue of contemporary or perpetual concern (e.g. questions such as ‘is there such a thing as human nature’), the position to be adopted is the one of someone saying: there areseveral explanations and they are simultaneously valid. As mentioned above, an apt metaphor for a conceptual frame comprising several theories developing as the domain is explored, would be that of the palace under continuous construction, or that of the ship being repaired as it sails. A new metaphor that we propose is that of a series of maps: each theory stands for a map of the domain tackled, with no map claiming to be complete or absolutely correct.
To draw a clarifying parallel: the bootstrap model is analogous with the M model in physics, where M represents a network of theories (Hawking 2001). Before the mid nineties physicists would believe that there are five distinct string theories. But when the M theory was put forward, these theories ceased to be regarded as mutually exclusive. The M theory provides the unique advantage of uniting the five theories in a single theoretical framework. What has made skeptical physicists such as Hawking take the M model seriously was the network of unexpected relationships connecting the theories (Hawking 2001: 57). These relationships reveal the fact that all five theories of cords are actually equivalent, meaning that they stand for different expressions of the same main theory, i.e. the M theory. The story of the M model points out that theories apparently divergent may converge in a common theoretical frame. This holds in the field of cultural studies and literary theory, too.
Matei Calinescu’s Five Faces of Modernity (1987) evinces a similar effort to convey the intrinsic unity of apparently discrete and even contradictory trends. Calinescu regards modernism, vanguardism, decadence, kitsch, and postmodernism as facets of a single cultural paradigm: modernity. His attempt to establish links between cultural trends apparently unrelated renders Calinescu’s endeavor similar to that of identifying a model M that would encompass different string theories in a common theoretical frame. Calinescu’s model is not left without echo. In 1990 Antoine Compagnon published his book entitledLes cinq paradoxes de la modernité, dealing in its five main chapters with (1) modernism, (2) vanguardism, (3) abstractionism and suprarealism, (4) expressionism and pop art, and (5) postmodernism, corresponding roughly to Calinescu’s ‘five faces of modernity’.
Both Calinescu’s theory (1987) and the M model point to a certain trend observable towards the end of the twentieth century. This tendency to identify cohesion and relationships between different and apparently irreconcilable theories, paradigms or ideas becomes more prominent as the turn of the century approaches. In his Foi et savoir, Derrida would wonder why we would be surprised by what has been quite hastily called “the return of religions”:
It surprises mostly the ones who naively believed that a certain alternativeopposes Religion on the one side, and Reason, Enlightenment, Science, Criticism (Marxist criticism, Nietzschean genealogy, Freudian psycho-analysis and their inheritance) on the other as if one could not exist but by breaking away from the other.
Derrida then adds a remark quite relevant for the present discussion, saying that ‘We should, on the contrary [not see these as irreconcilable alternatives, but rather] start from a different model [italics mine] in order to attempt to think this “return of the religious.”’ The model Derrida envisages will englobe ‘Religion on the one side, and Reason, Enlightenment, Science, Criticism (Marxist criticism, Nietzschean genealogy, Freudian psycho-analysis and their inheritance) on the other.’ From the perspective of such a model, diverging trends or theories would not appear as mutually exclusive.
The model that Derrida longs for seems to be one that would allow for contrary approaches to coexist, and reveal their intrinsic interconnectedness in an attempt to approximate a picture of culture that strives towards completeness (but cavete! not towards non-contradictions). Such a model allowing for contradictory paradigms of thought to reconcile is what we call metamodernism.
Within this model, religion and reason, with its Enlightenment, science and criticism are integrated. This is so mostly because the emergence of one of these is not seen as necessarily entailing a total breach with previous or concurrent others. From this perspective, we witness complex interconnections and interdependence, and even processes within one such model are seen as emerging from another and defining in relation to other(s). This holds good even when the relationship seems to be one of mutual denial, which is the case, for instance with modernism and postmodernism. Contradictions between paradigms or theories may be regarded as contraries and, since William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793) we know that ‘Without Contraries is no Progression.’ Quite relevantly, it is not progress as understood in the nineteenth and twentieth century that Blake talks about, but progression. Meaning either ‘gradual process of change or development’ and ‘movement towards a goal’, within the bootstrap cultural model, Blake’s progression suggests advancement of understanding due to successive attempts at making sense of different aspects of the world and of culture, coined from various perspectives and in different jargons. Literature, obviously, stands for the reflection of such endeavours.
In the fragment quoted at the beginning of the paragraph Ramone emphasizes the lack of a conceptual framework that would help one make sense of the increased complexity of experience. Without intending to set itself as the conceptual way out, metamodernism with bootstrapping as its functional model for revealing the dynamics of apparently diverging theories (and its engulfing concepts from different theories and placing them in dynamic relationships) may stand as a solution to Ramone’s conceptual deadlock. However, metamodernism does little ‘to straighten out the convoluted and straggly picture’. On the contrary, it acknowledges the complexity of phenomena rather than attempting to reduce them down to rational and manageable models or theories.
This network model of theory overlapping allows, at times, for a kind of logic different from the Cartesian one, i.e. from the analytical rationalism that has been dominating European Culture since the Renaissance. This type of logic is one of non-contradiction and inclusion similar to the models pervading the works of employed by Stéphane Lupasco (1900 – 1988), Indian philosophers or Attar (1119 – 1220), in his Mantiq at-Tayr or The Conference of the Birds.
We see thus that the roots and the impact of this logic of integration, rather than exclusion – as opposed to Aristotle’s principle of the excluded middle – are older and stronger that we may think. To give but one example, Indian philosopher Bhagwan Das (1869 – 1958) used to advocate the idea that ‘within diverging views on a subject there is always an element of truth in each’. His logic of integration called samanvay vad or ‘the integration of different points of view’ (Shrivastava 1995: 25) was employed in a religious context initially, but was subsequently employed in fields as different as politics, epistemology and science.
The logic that emerges from such a model, as from the bootstrap model, is a type of relational logic, peculiar to complex networks. Bhagavan Das’ samanvay das (the integration of different points of view) foretells not only the M model in physics but also the bootstrap model.
The Space of Interconnections
Everything is interconnection in nature and, willing or not, we are part of nature and instances of it, too. From the simplest multi-cellular organism such as Caenorhabditis elegans (Barabási 2003: 34) to the complex human brain, from eco-systems to social ones, our existence is mapped by networks. Our biological infrastructure is made up of a series of networks. There are networks of thoughts, of feelings and memories, professional networks and dialogue groups or circles of acquaintances. These not only map our existence, but also account to a certain degree for what we are and how we react, for how we grow and how we create.
Although one cannot ignore the all-important part networks play in our lives, one cannot hope to reduce human existence and consciousness to nodes and hubs, links and networks, to what is measurable and studied analytically. On the contrary, a networking outlook allows for networks at different ontological levels to interact. The sacred space of epiphany and the trite domain of daily experience or that of objective data interact, and it is from this interaction that the more mundane networks acquire meaning, that is, a tellable story.
Michel Houellebecq starts his 1998 novel Les particules élémentaires (English text: Houellebecq 2000: 5) with a eulogy to the web, which, in a way, is an imperfect synonym for network: ‘The web which weaves together all things envelops our bodies, / Bathes our limbs in a halo of joy.’ Houellebecq’s web acquires a somewhat mystical quality when he opposes ‘the web of suffering and joys’ which is our history to ‘the web which weaves together all things’ and ‘envelops our bodies’ (2000: 5-6). However, great disparities separate networks and Houellebecq’s anti-utopian web. Whereas networks are asymmetrical structures, or rather dynamic systems, unpredictably developing, webs are highly symmetrical, predictable, equalizing. Unsurprisingly, these last three attributes aptly qualify the post-historical humanity that the protagonist of The Elementary Particlesenvisages as alternative to suffering contemporaries. Moreover, all components of a web co-exist at the same level, whereas networks allow for connections between systems existing at different ontological levels. Whilst networks acknowledge random connections and choice, webs do away with the unpredictable and the creative.
Nevertheless, revealing the links between social beings as based on identity that results from leveling difference – until individuals are reduced to cells in an immense body – seems a desirable end to Michel Djerzinski, Houellebecq’s protagonist in The Elementary Particles. Before the new race he had engineered took over, humankind was marred by pain and lack of love, for ‘the relationships between [people] were at best indifferent and more often cruel’ (2000, 3). Here one can sense a scientific intertext. Humanity made up of individuals closed up in their own spheres seems as unnatural as the unfathomable elementary particles, which no one can actually identify. The species is somehow ‘redeemed’ and made to interact: its individual building blocks overcome their boundaries and become parts of a collectivity, a web.
Despite its seeming metamodern aspiration towards what Blake has called ‘universal brotherhood’ of all the people, this web of Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles, lies in the postmodern space of pastiche and irony, anti-utopia and sarcasm. Cloning humans in prime number bursts seems the only way out for a degenerated humankind solely keen on gratifying its own desires in a hic et nunc devoid of any metaphysical aspirations.
In order to solve the postmodern malaise, Hubczejack, Djerzinski’s successor, advocates cloning experiments and the replacement of humanity by a perfect loveless race (2000, 263). Thus, the narrative space of The Elementary Particles accommodates a post-human race which, by means of leveling the difference, has successfully done away with selfishness and violence, which have become extreme during the postmodern age.
A collectivity of beings that actually think alike, as cells in a body function alike, is created in The Elementary Particles. But can such a literally like-minded humanity be actually the dream of unity Djerzinski, and before him, Blake has envisioned? Well, I strongly doubt this. Those who thought, as Blake did, that equalizing laws are oppressive (‘one law for the sheep and the lion is oppression’ in Proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) could not have conceived of the ultimate harmony of people being achieved by reducing them to identical gene pools, and thus managing to leave ‘behind a world of division / the way of thinking which divided’ them (2000, 6).
One cannot help noticing the almost nostalgic tone with which the presumed collective narrator belonging to this post-human community talks of extinct humanity as a species ‘tortured, contradictory, individualistic, quarrelsome and infinitely selfish, […] sometimes capable of extraordinary explosions of violence, but [which] never quite abandoned its belief in love’ (2000: 264).
Here one senses an underlying hope that the metaphysical mutation as global transformation referred to at the beginning of The Elementary Particles (3) had been not solely a genetic one, but also a mental one. Then Djerzinski’s engineering the perfect post-human race would have eradicated not only death and physical or mental suffering, but also whatever prevents love – with the accompanying emotions of compassion, sympathy, forgiveness – from expressing and manifesting as a generative power.
The metaphysical mutation the narrator of Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particlesenvisages is a turn away from both modern individualism and postmodern fragmentarism. It is, therefore, a metamodern mutation. The metamodern turn is also a turn towards the story, but not merely to the story as entertainment, of which postmodern literature, especially low postmodernism, abounds, but as meaningful narrative that involves the audience, and answers some of its quandaries, thus aiming to either coax or shock the reader into regaining their humanity of concern, care, and compassion. It is a turn that restores to story its meaning, which somehow expresses the hope of restoring meaning to one’s life. And, moreover, it is a turn towards the story that bridges gaps between levels of existence. Not so much the story as an epistemological endeavor, but the story as a link between humans and (distinct) ontological levels. An apt metaphor for this may be Jacob’s ladder, on which angels climb and descend, establishing connections and interceding between high and low, between created and uncreated, between reality, if you want, and fiction, between factual and imaginative existence.
Tired of novels of action and suspense à la Grisham, bored with cheap so-called romantic literature – much like Houellebecq’s Michel in Plateforme – contemporary readership looks for meaningful stories that would make life livable, giving some direction and meaning to one’s experience. It is no longer the excitement of extremes or experiments that such people seek, but the middle way of meaning and wisdom.
Houellebecq senses this tendency, the thirst for meaning, for artistic expression springing from inner necessity. Michel, the protagonist of Plateforme notes that, despite most artists’ organizing themselves in ‘packs’ or ‘networks’ of interests and their cultivating a rather business-like attitude to their trade, there are still some, although quite a few, whose artifacts express an inner need (178-9).
Art springing from an urge to express felt by the artist and answering to the inner necessity for beautifully narrated meaningful stories or skillfully represented truth is, undoubtedly, art that surpasses late modern and postmodern tendencies. It is a different type of art that goes somehow against Nietzsche’s obituary for God, trying, on the contrary, to recapture the epiphany of experience. This is metamodern art.
Going back to Houellebecq, one cannot miss the great emphasis he lays, in bothParticules élémentaires and Plateforme, on networks and webs in human communities. The web established between the members of the post-human community in TheElementary Particles is a function of their similarity and like-mindedness, whereas the network of artists Michel mentions in Plateforme (178) seems primarily aimed at deriving lucrative advantages from one’s connections. Lack of connections and input or feedback from superiors is responsible for the implementation of the program that will cause Valerie’s death, Michel’s consequent lapse into apathy and pessimism, and Jean-Yves’ dramatic career downfall.
On the other hand, Michel’s influence on the implementation of sex tourism in the developing world proves the effectiveness and indeed potential danger of links or connections between individuals. The Aphrodite program, focussing on gratifying Westerners’ desire at the expense of local girls, starts with Michel and Valerie’s weak link turning into a strong bond based on mutual gratification of sexual desire. The strength of weak ties – to use Granovetter’s phrase (Granovetter 1973) – proves once again as Jean-Yves, only an acquaintance of Michel, takes up the latter’s idea of sex tourism and is instrumental in implementing it. This would eventually prove to have catastrophic effects for the lives of the two and for that of Valerie, the one weak link that connected them.
Both Platform and The Elementary Particles can be read in terms of the periphery (represented either by the obsession with sex or by its fanatic denial) becoming the centre and usurping the central values of humanity: love, compassion, sympathy, and the need to interact and communicate. The disastrous consequences such an upheaval may yield are explored at the collective level in The Elementary Particles, where humanity is replaced by a post-humanity, a species unitary and perfect, like an immense collective organism, but devoid of feeling and, most importantly, devoid of love and affection.Plateforme, written three years later, delves into individual destinies marred by the obsessive pursuit of pleasure. Making sexual gratification a central element in his character’s psyche and allowing it to become a drive and motivation yield catastrophic results for the main characters Valerie, killed by Muslim fanatics, and Michel, emotionally maimed after the loss of his girlfriend. Jean-Yves, too, is severely affected as his successful career is suddenly ruined as a result of the terrorist attack directed at the sex tourism he helped implement.
A man of his age, Michel is no different from most of his contemporaries: obsessively seeking pleasure, he tends to avoid the burden of cumbersome relationships. He feels he cannot and would not pass on any teaching after the tragic events in Thailand, for his story has been meaningless. Yet he wishes somehow to touch those unquestioning beings that seek pleasure for pleasure’s sake, as he used to before Valerie’s death. It is at these people that Houellebecq’s novels are addressed, in an attempt to provoke questioning and introspection.
We have seen how strong some weak ties can turn, and how dangerous not relating to the other is. Links can be dangerous, but lack of links is inhuman. The post-human collective character narrating The Elementary Particles confesses:
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. Science and art are still part of our society; but without the stimulus of personal vanity, the pursuit of Truth and Beauty has taken a less urgent aspect (263).
Significantly, Djerzinski’s positivistic attempt ‘to restore the conditions which make love possible’ (2000: 251), though successful in creating a post-human species devoid of suffering, falls short of bringing love back into the world, which was his goal in engineering the refined post-human species. The end turns the whole book into a plea for metaphysical mutation. The argument develops in several steps:
Because (1) Humankind cannot carry on along the self-destructive paths it strides at present and (2) should there be any hope for humankind, this lies in the restoration of humane values of love, with the attending feelings of compassion and forgiveness. Motherly love plays a most significant part in such redemption. (3) Such change will be the result of a mutation alone, for, as it stands, humankind can not find within itself the resources necessary for such a radical shift in mentalities and mores. It cannot undo by itself the evil it has inflicted on itself. (4) As The Elementary Particles suggests, mutations derived from mental constructs and reasoning, such as Djerzinski’s, may yield some interesting results, but will never attain the goal of redeeming humanity and love to humans. This has been the fate of many stories of resurrection (such as Marxism, communism, socialism) whose rise and fall we have been witnessing. The post-human species to which the narrator of The Elementary Particles belongs is the result of a physical mutation: it is created by means of genetic engineering. It is specifically breaking the connection with humanity – not strengthening it, as Djerzinski expected, though he had in mind humane feelings mostly, not indeed the ‘filial chain’ – that makes them what they are: sad gods doomed to live forever (263).
This mutation has fallen short of being what Djerzinski hoped for and post-humans claim it to be: a metaphysical mutation. ‘A metaphysical mutation’, the narrative voice of The Elementary Particles says, is a ‘radical, global transformation of values to which the majority subscribe.’ Such mutations are ‘rare in the history of humanity. The rise of Christianity might be cited as an example (3-4).
What takes place in Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles is definitely a mutation and the entire species’ agreement to certain values is indubitable. Yet this perfect species is not more human, but less so.
(5) As mutation is necessary for restoring humane values, and reason-inflicted mutations are doomed to fail – for human mind cannot possibly predict and control all the consequences of its own thinking and actions – the only hope for an ailing humanity is what Houellebecq calls a metaphysical mutation. This has been Djerzinski’s hope of redeeming love (not abolishing it almost completely, as the post-humans do) its centrality as a value apt to restore meaning to the human space of interconnections:
‘Natural forms’, wrote [Michel] Djerzinski, ‘are human forms. Triangle,interweaving, branching, appear in our minds. We recognize them and admire them; we live among them. We grow among our creations – human creations, which we can communicate to men – and among them we die. In the midst of space, human space, we make our measurements, and with these measurements we create space, the space between our instruments.’
‘Uneducated man,’ Djerzinski went on, ‘is terrified of the idea of space; he imagines it to be vast, dark, yawning. He imagines beings in the elementary forms of spheres, isolated in space, curled up in space, crushed by the eternal presence of three dimensions. Terrified by the idea of space, human beings curl up; they feel cold, they feel afraid. At best, they move in space and greet one another sadly. And yet this space is within them, it is nothing but their mental creation.’
In this space of which they are so afraid, human beings learn how to live and die; in their mental space, separation, distance and suffering are born. There is little to add to this: the lover hears his beloved’s voice over mountains and oceans; over mountains and oceans a mother hears the cry of her child. Love binds, and it binds forever. Good binds, while evil unravels. Separation is another word for evil; it is another word for deceit. All that exists is a magnificent interweaving, vast and reciprocal (2001: 251, emphasis mine).
Having lost its centrality, the postmodern world is doomed to fragmentarism, and, in the absence of anything to ensure its cohesion, to brittlling off. Yet, the connections between individuals, the ability of humans to create emotional, social, and theoretical networks, and to relate across ontological levels, may prevent the race from falling into the abyss of meaninglessness.
Present in our physical infrastructure, interconnections map out mental landscape, too. Interconnections are ways out of either excessive selfishness – an escape from the limited sphere of the ego, or surplus super-ego, with its limited, stifling affection. It is in the recognition that ‘all that exists is a magnificent interweaving, vast and reciprocal’ (2001: 251) that humans may forsake their encapsulating limited mental space of fear in order to expand, and become part and parcel of the great network of being.
By way of conclusion, a few thoughts about the larger topic of this paper: connectionism (as a mode of thinking), bootstrapping (as a way of identifying connections) and the principle of theory overlapping are but aspects of metamodernism. In a notebook entry Beckett would say that three basic urges map one’s life. These are birth, death and the need to express. I cannot agree more, yet, one certainly needs something to express. We express contents, not the mere vacuity of nothingness. Life itself is an expression of something; some would say of God’s love, some may equate it with something else, perhaps. The fact is that, obviously, giving life means giving shape: to an idea, when it comes to the creation of ugliness or beauty, to a feeling such as love, or an impulse such as desire: life is the shape of something. And, conforming to the circularity that we so often seem to observe in natural processes, this something that we feel the urge to express is what gives life its meaning. Metamodernism, then, is the struggle to find meaning, and in searching for meaning, it is the tendency to re-establish that connection or those connections that would render life and creation, love and expression meaningful.
To use a metaphor employed by Jünger in Eumeswil: late modernity and postmodernism have revealed the inherent insularity of individuals, the intrinsic fragmentarism of any meaning one can find in an ocean of seeming meaninglessness. However, between these islands, between these fragments that should by their very broken nature be parts of something, there can be interconnections that make them all parts of a network or of several networks, connections that redeem the forgotten nature of these islands as places of meaning, wonder and delight.
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