I just finished reading my first two books of 2016: Michel Serres’ ‘Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials’ (Petite Poucette: la génération mutante, 2014) and Michel Houellebecq’s ‘Whatever’ (Extension du domaine de la lutte, 1994). Although vastly different in orientation and style, their titles and subject themes strike an interesting contrast. Both books deal with the effects of information technology but come to radically different conclusions.
The title of Serres’ best-selling book refers to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale figure ‘Tommelise’. In England the character is perhaps better known as the protagonist of one of the earliest fairy-tale characters in English literature: “Tom Thumb“. Similarly to the story of Tom, Serres’ Thumbelina refers to a young generation which experiences and lives in a world of technological marvel and wonder via the means of the thumb. The bodily affect of this ‘thumbing’ experience is unfortunately largely missing from the English translation of the phrase ‘génération mutante’.
The theme of the book differs sharply with that of Houellebecq’s more explicitly political ‘Whatever’ where experiences with technology are seen as characteristic of a wider sense of societal withdrawal, defeat and despair. The original French title of the novel ‘extending the domain of class struggle’ refers to a popular post-May 1968 slogan which intended to transfer class struggle from the workplace to all situations in everyday life. The theme of struggle is in Houellebecq’s work taken to the domain of the life of an unnamed Hero who suffers from alienation while bodily suffering from a lack of wonder and potency.
The unnamed narrator of Houellebecq’s novel is Marcuse’s one-dimensional man. A single, 30-year-old computer engineer in Paris with no sex life, he suffers from a chronic passivity that, in Houellebecq’s view, is characteristic of Generation X. He buys, but doesn’t take joy in any of the things he possesses. He has acquaintances, but no friends. In his off hours he writes dialogues featuring an assortment of barnyard animals (Publisher’s Weekly).
Thumbelina has an altogether more positive tone. It is strange little book, written as a ‘love letter to the networked generation.’
For Serres, Petite Poucette doesn’t just stand for a new generation but represents a new kind of human being. While the exact circumstances of her coming into being remain in the dark, whatever gave birth to her had something to do with digital technology (Sebastian Olma)
Serres’ short text goes against the grain of many contemporary analyses of the tablet generation (See for instance Stiegler’s States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century). He celebrates the thumbing iPhone Poucette who is able to collect information on anything at any time through a simple gesture of her thumb.
Serres’ argument, is that the young people in our schools and universities, engaging in ever expanding digital networks and communicating with each other by means of virtual transmissions, represent a historical aperture, ‘one that is comparable to the more visible ruptures of the Neolithic, the beginning of the Christian era, the end of the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance’ (10). For Serres, thumbelina possesses nothing less than a new interiority. He anticipates that, through her, a new historical epoch will arise, one that will be more democratic and more ecological than our own. In her wake everything will change (Tim Howles’s review on the book via academia.edu)
This is a move away from the sort of enlightenment experience of knowledge as residing inside of the head, seen as something to be mastered and placed in a specific geographical location, towards an idea that understands knowledge as affectively exterior, luminous, dispersed etc. As one reviewer notes “Lecture courses, libraries, department stores, national anthems – so many institutions have become obsolete without anybody seeming to realise it. How can marriage remain the same when longer life expectancy means plighting one’s troth for 65 years rather than five or 10? Language itself is turned upside-down. Neologisms are emerging so fast that the French language Mr Serres grew up speaking will soon sound as antiquated and literary as that of the 12th century does to him.” To be sure, Serres thinks these are positive developments.
The process of ‘exteriorization’ will result, Serres claims, in the proliferation of a benign power in the world to come, one that will be more cognizant of the status of powerless victims: thus, ‘when I weigh the harm done by what grumpy old men call ‘egoism’ against the crimes committed by and for the libido of belongings – hundreds of millions of deaths – I love these young people to death’ (ibid.)
Houellebecq’s novel deals similarly with the place of technology in society but is strikingly less optimistic about its effects. His Whatever is a début novel but arguably among the least well-known of his oeuvre, at least in the English speaking world. It won him the 1995 Prix Flore for the best first novel and received wide acclaim in the French press. Those who are familiar with Houellebecq’s style and distinctive literary voice will understand that this praise was not unequivocal. One commentator “notes that “Houellebecq has split critics since his debut novel, Whatever (1994), which traced the terrifyingly quotidian lives of two computer programmers, filled only by sexual frustration, junk food and a latent appetite for violence, and provoked huge controversy on publication, with some reviewers demanding that it be awarded the Prix Goncourt immediately and others decrying it as demonstrative of a new literary style that was as prosaic as the fictional events it described.” A fragment from the book:
Your tax papers are up to date. Your bills are paid on time. You never go out without your identity card. Yet you haven’t any friends. . . . The fact is that nothing can halt the ever-increasing recurrence of those moments where your total isolation, the sensation of an all-consuming emptiness, the foreboding that your existence is nearing a painful and definitive end, all combine to lunge you into a state of real suffering. . . . You have had a life. There have been moments when you were having a life. Of course you don’t remember too much about it; but there are photographs to prove it.
Upon reading these books in sequence of each other, it is difficult to imagine that they are dealing with the same subject. One celebrating the possibilities for change after the beheading of hierarchies of knowledge, visualised in Serres’ figure of the headless Saint Denis of Paris, the other dreading the loss of meaning, characterised by Houellebecq’s suicidal and unnamed ‘hero’.
(Statue of Saint Denis – Patron and first bishop of Paris, in the Crypt of the Sacre Coeur, via)