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Michel Houellebecq and the Male Novel of Ressentiment

Abstract: This paper examines the fiction of Michel Houellebecq as an exemplary form of the “male novel of ressentiment”, linking it to the resentment that men feel due to the female liberation of productive forces. Houellebecq’s main argument about the formation of a Darwinian sexual marketplace is related to consumerism, but the general trend of his ideas is exposed as a manifestation of a “transsexual kitsch” that capitulates to the needs of this new sexual arena. This is seen as part of a strategy to wrest sexuality from the everyday and mobilize it as a productive force.

This paper will be examining an emergent form of cultural discourse, one that is endemic to late capitalist society – the male novel of ressentiment.1 In order to do this, this paper will be looking at the oeuvre of Michel Houellebecq, the new enfant terrible of French literature, and will be suggesting that these texts, while presenting a cogent critique of the sexual marketplace, are in fact entwined in the capitalist imaginary and appeal to a specific social demographic – that of the “flawed consumer”.2 Other examples of what this paper chooses to call the new “literature of male ressentiment” would be authors such as Chuck Palahniuk, whose “hip” prose and bitter dismissal of yuppie lifestyles appeals to the disenfranchised of society, but especially men who feel excluded from the consumer spectacle. Similarly, the novels of Luke Rhinehart offer solace to those whose lives are adrift, through an abrogation of responsibility, which logically is more appealing to the male gendered subjectivity. In the contemporary workplace men occupy a very equivocal position; young males are often excluded from the current consumer festival if they lack the respective skills and necessary “look”. New forms of emergent literature attempt to articulate these feelings of ressentiment that arise as the corollary of the liberation of female productive forces, but ironically these critiques can be inextricably intertwined with the weltanschauung (world-view) of the time; the ascendancy of feminism and consumerism are inextricably linked to the emergence of male ressentiment, since the privileges that men once held become tenuous and can no longer be taken for granted. The trajectory of this argument will analyse Houellebecq’s central thesis, then attempt to historicize them, pointing out how a “transsexual kitsch” is the only recourse to which one can have in the political economy of the sign if one is suffused with ressentiment. This will be achieved through an analysis of the French post-Marxist thinker Jean Baudrillard, who conceives of feminism as merely the liberation of productive forces, analogous to the movement within capitalism whereby the serf is emancipated as worker in order to be more efficiently exploited. The sexual revolution has been successful in ensuring that misery and alienation migrate into sexuality, and that the emancipated forms of sexuality valorized by many feminists are in fact what capitalism requires of us in the contemporary marketplace. This is important in understanding how the rapprochement of sex and capitalism has been undertaken, but also how the everyday experience of sex (previously a far more prosaic activity) has been warped by the unreasonable expectations of the consumer society. The new sexual marketplace creates a few winners and many losers, since not everyone can trade upon their appearance, yet we are all compelled to search for the “real” sexual experience, with the orgasm functioning as the stamp of authenticity, irrespective of our capacity to do so. This process also plays an important role in designating our status as a “real” man or woman, through our positioning as sexual subjects. The transsexual is the natural consequence of this general drift towards potentialized sex. For Baudrillard, the transsexual is a state of being which is not exclusive to people who have had their sex surgically altered – transgender individuals are merely associated with it, as transsexuality describes a more general blurring of sexual difference associated with postmodernity.

This paper will eschew a “reflectionist” perspective, attempting to show how these texts emerge in a complex social environment; it will proceed subtextually not contextually. Houellebecq’s novels attack contemporary sexual mores, but can also be seen as a response to ideologies of “consumer coupledom” and “chick-lit”, and so address the needs of the flawed consumer who is annexed from this lifestyle.3 Houellebecq and his protagonists often resemble Bernard Marx4 in the way they simultaneously repudiate and embrace the consumer society, and the male novel of ressentiment can serve to mitigate the feelings of frustration engendered by such a society. For this a fresh Marxist hermeneutic is required – Fredric Jameson says, “history is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but… as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in textual form, and that our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious” (Jameson 1981: 35). Texts consist of various antagonistic elements, in this case, a critique of the consumer society struggles with its imaginary solution; Houellebecq seeks to extract a “use-value” from the text, using it as a diaphragm to sound out his ressentiment. But ironically, this bilious response to the “feminization of sex” also incorporates its logical next stage, which is the transsexual, a kitsch solution to the involution of meaning instantiated by the postmodern. It is through unravelling and tracing these convoluted ideologies in Houellebecq’s texts that a historical situation may be disclosed.

The Illusions of Sexual/Social Inclusion

Firstly, this paper will explore Houellebecq’s central thesis – that of the reduction of life to the brutal honesty of a teeming sexual marketplace. Arguably things have always been this way, but the romantic ideologies of “love” meant that physical attributes were not as highly valued as now; an individuals “soul” or “inner beauty” was the alibi by which one could scrape a degree of mobility in the sexual arena.5 Now that this trite illusion has evaporated, the Darwinian struggle of sex is exposed in all its ferocity. Atomised (2000) concerns the lives of two brothers: Michel, who is sexually inept, abjures masturbation, an emotional cripple, and Bruno, a sexually frustrated buffoon, who exists in an almost constant state of sexual excitation. Houellebecq says of Michel, “emotion would pass him by, sometimes tantalizingly close; others would experience happiness and despair, but such things would be unknown to him, they would not touch him” (Houellebecq 2000: 99). Bruno, on the other hand, “his only goal in life had been sexual, and he realized that it was almost too late to change that now. In that, Bruno was characteristic of his generation” (Houellebecq 2000: 73). Neither is equipped to play the romantic role; Michel is too serious, while Bruno is too ugly and charmless. Similarly, in Whatever (1998) we meet Raphaël Tisserand, who is the acme of ugliness, “so ugly that his appearance repels women, and he never gets to sleep with them. He tries though, he tries with all his might, but it doesn’t work. They simply want nothing to do with him” (Houellebecq 1998: 53-54). These are people who are ignored, lack the sexual potential to forge attachments, and are pining for a basic human need – compassion. Houellebecq says of life in the mental hospital: “the idea gradually dawned on me that all these people – men or women – were not in the least deranged; they were simply lacking in love. Their gestures, their attitudes, their dumb show betrayed an excruciating craving for physical contact and caresses; but that wasn’t possible, of course. So they sobbed, emitted cries, lacerated themselves with their nails; during my stay we had a successful attempt at castration” (Houellebecq 1998: 149). Houellebecq rejects the psychoanalytic explanation for unhappiness, since he perceives it as an alibi for a generalized system of sexual inequality. This is the horrible truth of sexual liberation; if the lifesphere is infected with a pervasive obsession with sex, some will reap the full benefits, but others will be excluded. Houellebecq points out: “feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared; the relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel” (Houellebecq 2000: 3). The bourgeois affirmative culture that constitutes the romantic ideology is stripped away, which is clearly a positive development, but this leads to a new sexual hierarchy where those who sit at the bottom of the ladder in terms of attractiveness are denied certain basic needs. The “flawed consumer” has no role to play in the postmodern orgy – they are invisible, simply do not exist and are the waste matter of the social.6

Houellebecq illustrates his central thesis with the parable of an ugly child unhappily called ‘Brigitte Bardot’:

She could only assist, in silent hatred, at the liberation of others; witness the boys pressing themselves like crabs against others’ bodies; sense the relationships being formed, the experiments being undertaken, the orgasms surging forth; live to the full a silent self-destruction when faced with the flaunted pleasure of others. Thus was her adolescence to unfold, and thus it unfolded; jealousy and frustration fermented slowly to become a swelling of paroxystic hatred (Houellebecq 1998: 90).

Houellebecq is making the point that desire is not just a form of hormonal discharge, but something that must also be made manifest to others, to the less fortunate. He adds: “despite the avalanche of humiliations which made up her daily life, Brigette Bardot waited and hoped. She is probably waiting and hoping still. In her situation a viper would already have committed suicide. Mankind is supremely self-confident” (Houellebecq 1998: 90). For Houellebecq, human sexuality involves cruel and unremitting competition and ultimately serves to establish a form of social hierarchy. Tisserand starts going on under-25s holidays and discos, yet is still a virgin at twenty eight, while Bruno visits a “spirit of 68” commune, a sexual meat market disguised with a patina of liberal and new-age values, and is promptly alienated. Even in “Lieu du Changement”, the ne plus ultra of the sexual marketplace (or desperation), he fails to “score”. Sex in this environment, divested of any romantic ideologies, can only serve to satisfy man’s “animal appetites”, and so in this commodified sphere sexual liberation can only be a divisive development, since we are unable to seize the sexual means of production on an equal basis. In the “epistemic shift” (or “metaphysical mutation”, to use Houellebecq’s phrase) that has taken place, desire, as opposed to pleasure, is a form of suffering; Michel Djerzinski states, “stripped of their link with reproduction, lust and greed still exist – not as pleasure principles, but as forms of egotism. Why has the Swedish model of social democracy never triumphed over liberalism? Because the metaphysical mutation brought about by modern science depends on individuation, narcissism, malice and desire” (Houellebecq 2000: 191).7 But of course, in its own way it is a democracy, and many of Houellebecq’s protagonists succeed in it at a financial level but fail in sexual terms. Houellebecq explicitly states this thesis as follows:

In societies like ours sex truly represents a second system of differentiation, completely independent of money; and as a system of differentiation it functions just as mercilessly. The effects of these two systems are, furthermore, strictly equivalent. Just like unrestrained economic liberalism. And for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude (Houellebecq 1998: 99).

This is a society positivized by sex, and the aesthetic compensations of high culture cannot really compete with the sexual possibilities of the physically attractive. In Atomised, Janine regards Annabelle with loathing, while in Whatever Tisserand bristles in the presence of Thomassen; both feel ressentiment for those with a greater capacity for sexual expression.

In Whatever the single J.-Y. Fréhaut outlines his philosophy: “freedom was nothing other than the possibility of establishing various interconnections between individuals, projects, organizations, services. According to him the maximum amount of freedom coincided with the maximum amount of potential choice. In a metaphor borrowed from the mechanics of solids, he called these choices degrees of freedom” (Houellebecq 1998: 38). This is a somewhat idealistic philosophy, since choice and opportunity are not distributed in an egalitarian fashion. One solution for exponents of “social inclusion” has been to maximise the possibility of contacts, even in the sexual sphere, for the disadvantaged; for the sexually impoverished there now exists the solicitations of a Dutch sex worker. However, such viewpoints are predicated upon an anachronistic conception of social inclusion – in early modernity the simple binary distinction could be made between those included and excluded, and the gulag archipelago was the corollary of this. This world has now been superseded by differential prejudice, forms of inclusionary control that exclude in a much more insidious fashion. Jock Young says of postmodernity:

It does not present itself as an on/off switch of inclusion or exclusion: either you’re inside society or you’re not. Rather it is a shifting process which occurs throughout society, for exclusion is a gradient running from the credit rating of the well-off right down to the degree of dangerousness of the incarcerated. Its currency is risk, its stance is actuarial – calculative and appraising. The image is not that of a core of insiders and a periphery of outsiders but more that of a beach where people are assigned to a gradient of positions in a littoral fashion (Young 1999: 65).

In “risk society” there is no “trust”,8 so what follows is an actuarial mode of calculation and risk assessment, arising in this climate of insecurity. Frank Furedi also makes the point that we are not “all at risk” – risk is in fact differentially distributed.9 In the new actuarial morality the real risks do not lie with perverse sex but with relations with social undesirables such as “flawed consumers”. Bruno makes the point that:

Man was always terrified by death, he’s never been able to face the idea of his own destruction, or even physical decline, without horror. Of all worldly goods, youth is clearly the most precious and we don’t believe in worldly goods any more (Houellebecq 2000: 309).

All their mother wants to be is young; she stays around the young, seduces ever more youthful boys, all in a desperate attempt to avoid the status of the flawed consumer. Inclusionary social control that maintains hegemony of opinion operates to keep those excluded from the orgy in an acquiescent (yet frustrated) state.

The metaphor of the beach is somewhat apposite for the study of social exclusion in Houellebecq; on the beach at Cap d’Agde we see the apotheosis of this process, involving a move from “nature as referent” in naturism to the dynamics of the consumer society. Houellebecq says, “what we have here is a traditional, rather genial, seaside resort with the single distinction that sexual pleasure is recognized as an important commodity. It is tempting to suggest that this is a sexual “social democracy”, especially as foreign visitors to the resort are principally German, Dutch and Scandinavian” (Houellebecq 2000: 260). This is a social democracy of leisure, along with the attendant ideologies; the actuarial approach to risk, as something to be managed not solved, follows in the analytically orchestrated couplings between the German Rudi and Hannelore, and the French Bruno and Christiane. There is a decline of romantic ideologies, replaced by “goodwill”, but the beach has its own hierarchies and goodwill cannot be distributed equally. But here, it seems under a consumerist exigency the true “use-value” of sex is emancipated; this is purely uncomplicated sexual activity. Jean Baudrillard has remarked:

Needs point to a reassuring universe of ends, and this naturalistic anthropology lays the ground for the promise of a universal equality. The implicit argument is as follows: all men are equal before need and before the principal of satisfaction, since all men are equal before the use-value of objects and goods (whereas they are unequal and divided before exchange-value)…at the meat-and-drink level (use-value), there are no proletarians, no privileged individuals (Baudrillard 1998a: 50).10

This is the lie of affluence and democracy; as conspicuous consumption is displaced by mass consumption as a signifying practice, goods are made available to all, and then surely we should all be performing on a level playing field. The poor now engage in the same pursuits as the rich. But if consumption can be considered a language, then it is also true that some employ it more adroitly than others do; “goodwill”, despite the ideology of equality, is by default differentially distributed. Jock Young links crime and unhappiness to “relative deprivation”, i.e. the discrepancies that emerge between what is offered and what is delivered. The problem with a spurious meritocracy such as ours is that it offers a set of cultural values, incorporates and includes everyone on this basis, yet steadfastly fails to stick to them (e.g. myth of a “democracy of leisure”). Houellebecq points out, “Denmark and Sweden, which provided the socioeconomic models for European democracies, also obliged with a model of sexual liberation. Unexpectedly, the great middle classes of labourers and office workers – or, rather, their sons and daughters – were to discover a new sport in which to compete” (Houellebecq 2000: 74). Bruno attends a language course, and in a sexual contest he scores zero “lays” to a colleague’s thirty-seven. We see a paradoxical process whereby many people are simultaneously excluded and included, accept the egalitarian values of society yet cannot realize them. Houellebecq illustrates this hegemony at work: “in Cap d’Agde, as anywhere, the obese, the old and the ugly are condemned to solitary masturbation – the sole difference being that whereas masturbation is generally prohibited in public, here it is looked upon with kindly compassion” (Houellebecq 2000: 264). But as Houellebecq implies, you cannot legislate for everyone’s needs, and it overlooks the frustration of those who swallow the egalitarian premise but find their route to success blocked. This discloses the horror of Houellebecq’s vision – sexual liberation becomes a curse, a trap for the flawed consumer who cannot fulfil these “democratic” values, and must ultimately be excluded. Houellebecq remarks, “this respect, which pleasurably rewards those who respect the contract, is a powerful principle, in that even without a written code, it can be easily enforced on the multifarious minorities at the resort (Front National thugs, Arab delinquents, Italians from Rimini)” (Houellebecq 2000: 265). The misfits who aspire to this democracy of leisure are merely opening themselves up to the pain of “relative deprivation”, and ultimately these virtual gated communities are parasitic upon the flawed consumers who unwittingly legitimate this social misery. J.G.Ballard paints a very similar picture in his novels Super-Cannes (2000) and Cocaine Nights (1997), where the poor function as a raw human resource that helps to perpetuate this paradoxical form of social exclusion.

Ressentiment and the New Productive Forces

However, Houellebecq’s critique can be seen as a male response to what Barbara Ehrenreich et al. call the “feminization of sex”. For Ehrenreich and her co-writers, the female sexual liberation is seen as a salutary development and a progression from what they see as the patriarchal objectification of women, best exemplified by Playboy and strip clubs. Ehrenreich et al. explains that, “the social meaning of sex changed… from a condensed drama of female passivity and surrender to an interaction between potentially equal persons” (Ehrenreich et al. 1986: 5). This has come about partly through the decline of the medicalized view of “healthy” sex – a deconstruction of the foreplay/intercourse model, leading to a more “playful” view of sex. Ehrenreich et al. explains, “in the postmedical vision of healthy sex offered by popular psychology, a varied and abundant sex life was the prerogative of any questing individual and, it was available, potentially, to anyone who was open to “growth”” (Ehrenreich et al. 1986: 80). The radical feminist stance on sexual emancipation has reached its fulfilment, and has now become the norm – clearly this is partially a salutary development, but one that shouldn’t be celebrated uncritically. The naturalized view of heterosexual sex is broken down, but pleasure is implicitly predicated upon “good sex”. Ehrenreich et al. say, “women had been deprived, sexually stunted in service to the vaginal and phallocentric sex imposed by men”(Ehrenreich et al. 1986: 71). Radical feminism valorizes clitoral sex, making the claim that women’s sexual revolution, as opposed to men’s, is more qualitative than quantitative.11 But Ehrenreich et al. point out that the sexual marketplace is a consequence of male ressentiment at this liberation of productive forces: “the crisis in heterosexuality had introduced new metaphors for sex that drew on the world of market relationships: sex as a system of bartering, sex as consumerism. In the next phase of the sexual revolution, the metaphors would become reality” (Ehrenreich et al. 1986: 102). Here they are referring to the sex industry, but seem unaware of the market exposed by Houellebecq. However, Houellebecq, like Baudrillard, takes a dim view of feminism, castigating it as a form of female ressentiment, since women want the privileges of sexual equality but also “real men” (i.e. macho, gendered men).12 In the absence of a viable alternative, such as Baudrillard’s conception of the symbolic, this argument emerges as a tendentious, bilious whine of ressentiment. When Bruno, via Christiane, finally gets access to the sex life of his dreams, he leaps in with gusto; all moral and ethical judgement is suspended.

But Ehrenreich et al. state, “the marketplace is democratic; its potential pleasures are not limited to the beautiful or fit, but to any woman who can shop” (Ehrenreich et al. 1986: 108). But not everyone possesses the money or the consumer finesse to extract the most from this sexual democracy. Ehrenreich et al. continue:

This is the dynamic of the market, and in sex as well as fashion or entertainment, it pushes always and inexorably toward new frontiers. Thus the sexual marketplace both democratizes and institutionalizes the sexual revolution. Practices that were once pioneered by a few brave souls become, through the marketplace, the potential property of anyone. The variety once enjoyed by an avant-garde or urban elite becomes available through mail-order catalogues to a housewife in Iowa (Ehrenreich et al. 1986: 110-111).

They advocate “sexual exploration”, but in reality not everyone has the means to do this. Houellebecq carries this logic to its conclusion, exposing this imposed hierarchy, from the heights of consumer coupledom to the lows of solitary masturbation. Bruno summarizes his mother’s New-Age philosophy as follows: “it was all about liberating the individual’s innate potential – “because we only use ten per cent of our brain, you know”” (Houellebecq 2000: 82). The character Annick in Atomised is a sexual outcast, who is tormented by the constant urging of the culture industry to release her potential, but this is a role she cannot adopt. The meta-experiential solicitations of the new sexual ethos bring misery for those who cannot compete, and the New Left “jargon of authenticity” regarding sexual liberation often closely resembles New-Age ideologies of “breaking through” to new layers of existence. For the flawed consumer there can be no breakthrough, only humiliation; Houellebecq writes, “much later, Bruno would come to realise that the petit-bourgeois world of accountants and middle managers was more accepting, more tolerant than the alternative scene” (Houellebecq 2000: 69).

But the male novel of ressentiment is a relatively recent development, while the sex industry has now been with us for a considerable length of time. An explanation of this could be put down to a mutation in productive forces. One of the problems of vulgar Marxist analyses of society is the hypostatization of productive forces, the “base”, as industry. Raymond Williams says, “from castles and palaces and churches to prisons and workhouses and schools; from weapons of war to a controlled press: any ruling class, in variable ways though always materially, produces a social and political order. They are the necessarily material production within which an apparently self-subsistent mode of production can alone be carried on” (Williams 1977: 93). Culture emanates from many forms of material production, and of course literature is no exception. As we have moved from a regime of production to one of consumption, it seems unlikely that the site of the reproduction of the social relations of production can be exclusively located in the factory; through “proletarianization” mass consumption becomes the new work, the new social obligation. Maurice Godelier takes a similar view – he asserts the Marxian primacy of the infrastructure (base), but in order to avoid economic determinism, he points out that the social relations of production and the appropriation of nature are determined functionally, not institutionally.13 So in some societies, social reproduction is not carried out in the economic, but by other systems located in an analogous position. For instance, in primitive communism kinship relations determine reproduction of the social relations of production. Reconfiguring the classic base/superstructure argument, Godelier instead posits a blurring of the mental and material, locating productive forces in a manifold of places, therefore arriving at a conception of social reproduction similar to the Gramscian idea of “hegemony”. As Kristin Ross has pointed out, the key demographic for contemporary mass consumption is a new couple, and this is achieved through the ideology of “consumer coupledom”. Much of the cultural material provided for women revolves around the avoidance of singledom, with the single woman ideologically constructed as the undesirable flawed consumer. It is here that we can uncover a fresh knot of productive forces, producing new relations of production compatible with mass consumption. The central protagonist of Whatever is tormented by adverts for consumer treats he will never share with a partner, and so is exposed to “relative deprivation” and ressentiment (Houellebecq 1998: 124) The male novel of ressentiment is a rejoinder to the new literature of the happy consumer; an emergent literary form catering to the needs of those who do not “make the grade”. If it could have provided a cogent alternative to the liberation of productive forces, then Houellebecq’s stance would have been radicalized. As it is, it is merely pre-revolutionary, unenlightened by any notion of praxis to transform the new sexual means of production. As will be shown below, Houellebecq’s answer is merely a form of Huxleyan, transsexual kitsch.

Like Aldous Huxley, Houellebecq has a somewhat cynical view of human desire, and waxes indignant at the “immorality” of the animal kingdom: “nature was not only savage, it was a repulsive cesspit. All in all, nature deserved to be wiped out in a holocaust – and man’s mission on Earth was probably to do just that” (Houellebecq 2000: 38). Michel Djerzinski believes in an “absolute morality”, which for him is necessary for a healthy society and a solution for unregenerate human nature. This is another problem, because Houellebecq, like Huxley, is a biological determinist. Theodor Adorno’s following remarks on Huxley can also be applied to Houellebecq:

He proceeds from an invariant, as it were biological concept of need. But in its concrete form every human need is historically mediated. The static quality which needs appear to have assumed today, their fixation upon the reproduction of the eternally unchanging, merely reflects the character of production which becomes stationary when existing property relations persist despite the elimination of the market and competition. When this static situation comes to an end needs will look completely different (Adorno 1997: 109).

Houellebecq is an essentialist who sees man as naturally competitive and violent, while women are by nature maternal and compassionate. Additionally, his view of sexual dynamics is as a kind of “survival of the fittest”, where the physically less attractive will always be doomed to misery. Bruno remarks, “everyone says Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that’s hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against age, the leisure society. This is precisely the world we have tried – and so far failed – to create” (Houellebecq 2000: 187). But with no conception of true or false needs or of praxis, one is forced to adopt a biological solution to alienation through the liberation of “human potentialities”.14 Effectively abolishing sexuality would end this competition, making everyone happy – Michel explains:

The Utopian solution – from Plato to Huxley by way of Fourier – is to do away with desire and the suffering it causes by satisfying it immediately. The opposite is true of the sex-and-shopping society we live in, where desire is marshalled and organized and blown up out of all proportion (Houellebecq 2000: 192).

In Atomised, the solution is through creating a new species, which has “Krause’s corpuscles”, cells relating to sexual pleasure, implanted all over its body. This literalization of a functional “polymorphous perversity” is endorsed by the “Movement for Human Potential”, leading to a cosier “feminine” future. This in turn leads to the refutation of the post-structuralist critical heritage, and a biological, positivist conception of Utopia.15

The Transsexual in the Ascendancy

Baudrillard diagnoses the postmodern as the ecstasy of value, accelerated to the Nth power, divorced from referentiality (the “real” world), and this constitutes liberation realized; he says, “political economy will have come to an end, but not at all as we expected it to – it will have ended by becoming exacerbated to the point of value” (Baudrillard 1998b: 1). What develops is not the transvaluation but the commutation of value, no transformation but merely extension, leading to the indiscriminate mixing of categories that were formerly mutually exclusive; instead of the ushering in of a substantive new social order which promises genuine change, the current one is infinitely extended as a hypersaturated system. With no opposites, there can be no contradiction, no criterion of value, meaning that the teleological certainties of progress and the Enlightenment Project dissolve in a loss of specificity. This radical semiurgy, the dominance of the linguistic sign, causes an involution of all spheres leading to a metastatizing promiscuity of the social; society becomes a bloated, hypertrophied mass consisting of the redundant signs of change, rather than traversing a genuine transformation. With the loss of any sort of general equivalent or standard (exchange-value can only be established with something to exchange it against, gold for instance), signs float, circulate randomly, signalling the demise of sexual exchange-value. Baudrillard says, “because they exist in a system without general equivalence they cannot be exchanged for one another any longer which causes them to float in regard to each other and accelerate their circulation without any possible exchange in real value or real wealth” (Baudrillard 1992: 11). Houellebecq points out that the pornographic film Emmanuelle (1974) is a manifesto for the social democracy of leisure, and has a mythic power stemming from the conjunction of hyperreal sex with exotic locations. This is a sexual drama circulating around risk and “adventure”, rather like the car crashes and atrocity newsreels that add a piquancy to Catherine and Ballard’s orgasms in Crash (1995).16 The French Marxist Henri Lefebvre was one of the first to identify this substitute for genuine adventure in everyday life:

Eroticism is obsessive nowadays, though this obsession only superficially reflects an intensification of virility (or femininity) and a greater aptitude for sexual pleasure. We see it rather as a symptom of the obverse, a lack of virility and femininity, frigidity, not overcome but self-conscious, and a demand for compensations. The cult of Eros denotes a desire to restore former interdictions so that transgressions – investing erotic acts with a lost significance – become possible; whence the impressive number of collective rapes and sadistic or masochistic rituals (Lefebvre 1971: 84).

The watching of atrocities, the staging of “adventure”, facilitates new prohibitions and in turn potential transgressions; the atrocity represents the institution of an evanescent new “gold standard” of sexual practice, a new general equivalent that can momentarily arrest the flux of signifiers. In this way the motorcar, or the nightclub can function as a “facilitator” – J. G. Ballard says, “I’m intrigued by technology, which I see as a powerful facilitator, releasing all manner of suppressed and deviant impulses – cars, high-rises, gated communities are potent engines of possibility” (Sutherland: 2). But it is the danger intrinsic to technology that is what is effective here, enabling a postmodern survival strategy achieved through an eviscerated form of transgression. Houellebecq says, “with his last breath, he would still plead for a postponement, plead to live a little longer. In particular, he would continue his quest for the ultimate pleasure to the end; one last indulgence” (Houellebecq 2000: 142). This is a form of sexuality that has shifted from the commodity to the sign, but the staging of desire, the temporary resurrection of a sexual exchange-value, quickly atrophies, meaning there must be more sex, the potentialization of sex. Houellebecq points out that in the liberated nightclubs, “couples quickly abandoned their search for pleasure (which required time, finesse and sensitivity) in favour of prodigal sexual abandon” (Houellebecq 2000: 292). But this frenzied descent into Marx’s despised “animal appetites” cannot last forever; a necrotic coccyx precludes any further adventure for Christiane, therefore in her value system her life is over (the inability to achieve orgasm is equivalent to death for her). Houellebecq’s immortal sex clones can escape this difficulty.17

Baudrillard links fascination with the sexual to a disappearance of sexual difference.18 In the promiscuity of the pornographic postmodern, everything is atomised, particulate and rendered isolated. In Atomised, the “Movement for Human Potential” employs the slogan “The Future is Feminine”, celebrating the imminent dissolution of sexual difference. Baudrillard states, “but we are no longer looking for an imaginary wealth in these images; we are looking for the vertigo of their superficiality, the artifice of their detail, the intimacy of their technique” (Baudrillard 1992: 16). Sexual use-value, best exemplified in New-Age and New Left ideology, acts as an alibi for this superficiality. This is in fact the “fractal body” that is not alienated from anything; the body has retreated before the endless vertiginous play of signifiers. One cannot talk of liberating the transsexual, postmodern body. This is a sexuality unmoved by jouissance – a viral sex, a matter of artifice, a ludic sexuality, whether achieved by a surgical operation or deceit. The sexual promiscuity of most of Atomised follows a more archaic mode of simulation that concatenates signifiers in order to achieve a temporary “resurrection effect” of desire. The transsexual order, the fractal stage of simulation that is unveiled at the end of the novel, ushers in a new affectless species. Baudrillard says, “after the orgy comes the time of transvestism. After jouissance (sexual pleasure), comes the artifice. After the reign of desire and sexual difference comes the triumph of a medley of all erotic simulacra, topsy-turvy. It is a transsexual kitsch in all its glory” (Baudrillard 1992: 20).19 Baudrillard extrapolates the sex lives of Crash to the next stage, a science fictional rendering of Ballard’s fiction. In the near future, the car as crutch for a system of sexual exchange-value will be kicked away; the post-technological sexuality of Houellebecq’s sex clones will no longer need the staging of desire.

Houellebecq’s solution ironically mirrors the “hybridization of difference” in the postmodern, and he unwittingly becomes one of its central apologists. Since we are “accelerating into the void” due to being beyond the discourse of alienation, Houellebecq’s solution is to dream an end of sexual politics, supplant it with sexual ecstasy, but the irony is that this is what liberation was aiming at anyway. Baudrillard says:

Retrospectively the triumph of the transsexual and transvestism casts a strange light on the sexual liberation of previous generations. This one, far from being, according to its own discourse, the irruption of a maximal erotic value of the body, with the privileged assumption of the feminine and of jouissance (the masculine having appropriated for itself, at least until now, the domain of power) will perhaps have been but an intermediary phase in its evolution towards the confusion of genders. The sexual revolution will have been a decisive stage toward transsexuality (Baudrillard 1992: 20-21).

Hence this obsessive quest for gender (“he makes me feel like a woman”) at both the prosaic end of the everyday and the more rarefied space of radical feminist theory. This endless commutability of signifiers was what capitalism wanted all along, not merely profit or exchange-value. Houellebecq unwittingly celebrates the trajectory of this process, while simultaneously condemning the social atomization it unleashes. As a “fundamentalist of the real”, the man of ressentiment counters his bitterness with a nostalgia for religion and the family. Huxley laboured under the same contradictory logic, and this narrative of ressentiment is the only recourse Nietzsche’s “last man” possesses.

In Houellebecq’s solution of transsexual kitsch, production remains the “determinant instance”; in postmodernity, the hierarchies and finalities of value and the economic merely undergo an involution. True Utopia destroys a surplus, evades power; the Revolution will come not to those who seize the means of production, but those who destroy it. Baudrillard says of dialectical logic: “the revolution becomes an end, not in any sense the radical exigency that presumes, instead of counting on a final totalization, than man already totally there in the revolt” (Baudrillard 1975: 162). In Whatever perhaps we see this – at the end of the novel, the central protagonist becomes enclosed within himself, and through this inertial revolt rejects the world’s values. This is a purely spontaneous revolt, emerging on a cycling trip to the countryside, and represents an alternative from that of the man of ressentiment. The weak signs of this protest subvert the strong signs of transsexual kitsch, a far subtler seduction to that of the tyranny of the Flesh.


1″Ressentiment” is a Nietzschean term that describes the resentment slaves feel for their masters; rather than aspiring to greatness, the slave seeks to drag the master down to their level. For a critical introduction to these ideas, see Keith Ansell-Pearson, An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political Thinker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

2 The “flawed consumer” is the outcast of the postmodern orgy, who either consumes incompetently or too well. See Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodernity and its Discontents (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998) 14. For some contextualization of Houellebecq within the field of French literature, see Jack I. Abecassis (2000).

3 “Consumer coupledom” is an ideology of mass consumption aimed at young couples. See Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies (Cambridge, Mass. And London: MIT Press, 1995) 106. “Chick-Lit” is the colloquial term for literature which describes the romantic vicissitudes of “swinging singletons”, a sort of emergent picaresque literature culminating in a stable sexual relationship for its protagonist.

4 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (London: Flamingo, 1994).

5 Films such as The Elephant Man (1980) affirm this superficial ideology, where a characters “inner beauty” is speciously contrasted to his external ugliness. Houellebecq’s contention is that external appearance is the only factor that has any real bearing on sexual attraction.

6 See Michel Houellebecq, Atomised (London: Heinemann, 2000) 67. Houellebecq avers that the plain girl is invisible and is simply ignored, the “flawed consumer” that is excreted by the social. This social demographic has its usefulness in universalizing the values of the consumer society, but if we accept the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s contention that sexuality is discursive (that is, culturally constructed), then logically the unattractive individual cannot in any sense be a “sexual” being, since they do not fulfil the requirements of what society considers to be sexual. The flawed consumer is trapped, divested of their sexuality, yet told to embrace their sexuality as a consumer practice.

7 Houellebecq sees European social democracy as a failed attempt to cope with basic biological facts of inequality that liberalism has ignored. However he fails to see that both operate under democratic principles.

8 Michael T. Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980) 194. In symbolic systems of reciprocity where life and death lie closely together, a great degree of faith and trust is required in exchange. In modernity, this trust breaks down under reification, and life and death drift apart. Frank Furedi makes a similar point in Culture of Fear (London: Cassell, 1998) 29.

9 Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear (London: Cassell, 1998) 56-57.

10 Baudrillard is suggesting that the Marxist dream of “use-value” is in fact realized in mass consumption, and that it is a fundamentally flawed concept.

11 The Situationist Raoul Vaneigem sees this as a vitiation of life by the exchange principle; he says, “life cannot be reduced to some sort of vaginal, phallic, anal, digestive, cervical or clitoral spasm. It has no truck with economics…it falls outside productive norms” (Vaneigem 1983:12). If the sexual revolution follows this productive ethos, it will lead to “proletarianization”.

12 See Michel Houellebecq, Atomised (London: Heinemann, 2000) 173-174 for the exposition of his viewpoint.

13 Maurice Godelier, The Mental and the Material (London: Verso, 1986) 78. Baudrillard contends that in symbolic, pre-capitalist societies there is no production whatsoever; opposed to its finalities is the cyclical movement of the gift. See Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975) 79-80.

14 See many of the essays in Aldous Huxley, The Human Situation (London: Flamingo, 1994) for a similar eugenicist solution. However, the Huxleyan satirical approach has not been adopted in Houellebecq’s fiction; his ressentiment decreases the critical force of his polemic, because it is meant to be taken literally.

15 Houellebecq has personally advocated this solution, and conceives of his fiction as a didactic medium. See Emily Eakin, “Publish and be Damned” 49. It could in fact be suggested that this solution has affinities with the work of Hélène Cixous and her valorization of “jouissance” (sexual ecstasy). However, Cixous repudiates biological essentialism, and though she does link the capacity for female jouissance to the clitoris, she primarily conceives of this process as a discursive one relating to literature. See Cixous and Clément, The Newly Born Woman. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

16 David Cronenberg makes this theme quite explicit in his adaptation of Crash; the protagonists are simply unable to achieve orgasm and go to extreme lengths in order to do so. Cronenberg turns Ballard’s novel into a perverse kind of love story about a yuppie couples search for orgasm, which constitutes their conception of a loving relationship. Iain Sinclair has pointed out that Cronenberg “cleans up” Ballard’s novel, producing a sanitized vision of yuppified sex (Sinclair 1999: 105).

17 For Herbert Marcuse, when the “performance principle” is overcome, death represents the sole obstacle to endless desire; see Eros and Civilization (London: Routledge, 1998) 191. Janine surrounds herself with the young, engages in sex with virile young boys, desperately clings to life. In the absence of sexual outlets Christiane commits suicide, while Annabelle, unable to achieve immortality through childbirth, takes an identical route. See Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975) 60-64 for a critique of this productivist logic.

18 Arguably a typical French male strategy, posing virility vis-à-vis alienation. Cf. Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life (London: Verso, 1991).

19 The third order of simulation (ushering in the political economy of the sign) is followed by the fourth order, where the sign dissolves into the total promiscuity of signifiers.

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Author: Liam McNamara is a PhD student in English Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. The British Academy currently funds him and his thesis concerns the category of the “real” and the fiction of J. G. Ballard.

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