It’s almost a ubiquitous assumption today that man, especially since the dawn of the Age of Science, is in the steady process of conquering nature. As our technological proficiency expands, nature submits to our whims. Rather than being exposed to nature’s harsh elements, we built shelters; rather than succumbing to rampant disease and early death, improvements in sanitation and medicine lengthened our lifespans; instead of being isolated in whichever small corner of the planet we happen to find ourselves in, we harnessed electricity, rail, and air travel to open up the globe for trade and communication.
This seemingly perpetual advance of man’s mastery over nature entices some to suppose that the relentless march has no limit. Will we perhaps, at some point, even bring that most intractable of all human problems—death—to its knees? The most intrepid and optimistic of technologists hold out hope for just that, whether by an indefinite extension of biological life or uploading consciousness to a computer.
Sex and Death
While this drive for an immanent immortality, mimicking the traditional drive for spiritual transcendence, seeks to escape the unpleasant reality of death, it is usually accompanied by a concomitant desire to escape the dictates of sex. Sex, that is, in its most integral sense: the fleshly participation in the conjugal act of procreation, as opposed to “sex” as copulation abstracted from the process of procreation by technology.1 In this integral sense, sex is deplored and fled from on much the same grounds that we attempt to elide death. The infamous individualism of modern culture has so metastasized in its latter, post World War II stages, that the basic bonds of human affection, marriage, and childbearing start to be felt as burdensome, rather than as the gracious means for blunting the cold reality of death.
Cultural expressions of this rejection abound. The plague of pornography and the related phenomenon of males exiting the sexual marketplace is one side of this de-sexualization; the careerist female urbanite on birth control who thinks it would be a sin to bring a child into this patriarchal world where Global Warming could strike it dead at any moment is the other. With there being many sub-variations and iterations of both phenomena. This process of de-sexualization results in, among other things, the sub-replacement level fertility rates that we see all over the industrialized world.
Increasingly having lost any supernatural consolation of the afterlife, or even a natural consolation of family—including children who will outlive you and carry your own genetic and spiritual legacy into the future—modern man seeks for alternative solutions to the problem of death. There are merely psychological solutions such as an obsession with looking and feeling young, by way of intense devotion to fitness, diet, and/or plastic surgery. There are cultural practices which attempt to remove death from our conscience, like convalescent homes and moving cemeteries and the practice of care for the deceased from the hands of churches and loved ones to distant professionals. Then there are technological solutions which aim to overcome death in a more literal way.
This perverse flight from sex (and thus life) and death inadvertently points to a profound truth about the deep connection between the two processes.
Many fathers of the Church taught that sexual reproduction, at least as we experience it, is a product of the Fall. (That death was also a consequence of the Fall is laid out explicitly in the Genesis narrative.) There are many reasons for this. One is that Adam and Eve didn’t procreate until after the fall, and the account of this story was given when procreation and sex were bound up tightly together. Another is that sex, along with our digestive functions, were seen as the baser elements of our nature—bound up with the ‘garments of skin’ that Adam & Eve put on—since they are things that we share with beasts. Still another reason is that Eve received the curse of pain in childbearing as a result of the Fall. Can you conceive of sex-and-reproduction (again, at the time considered an integral process), without pain in childbearing? For the fathers, then, whatever reproduction would have been like had the Fall not occurred, we can’t imagine it just as we can’t imagine painless childbirth.
It is only by way of technological advance—widely available and effective birth control, sanitized abortion, mass pornography—that the link between sex and reproduction has become so thoroughly severed in our minds. And further how the link between sex and death has become obscured. Technology isn’t only something we do, but something that happens to us, altering our modes of perception and thought. Marshall McLuhan observed that the technology of the phonetic alphabet and later the printing press shifted the emphasis of western man’s senses to the visual plane, and disconnected us from the much more auditory realm of our more primitive ancestors. Similarly, our sexual technologies disconnect us from the world where sex and reproduction were a unit, and sex and death were flip sides of a single coin. But some are still able to perceive it.
Jean Baudrillard, in contemplating the push—in both the speculative imagination and the sciences—to clone humans, perceptively articulates the connection. He describes cloning as the “dream of an eternal twinning substituted for sexual reproduction that is linked to death.” The desire to clone is the impulse to obliterate alterity, to long after a production of the Same, and thereby to abolish sex which is always an encounter with, and reproduction of, the Other. It is, in other words, a death-drive:
What, if not a death-drive, would pushed sexed beings to regress to a form of reproduction prior to sexuation. . . what denies sexuality and wants to annihilate it, sexuality being the carrier of life, that is to say of a critical and mortal form of reproduction?2
Michel Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles is an extended literary exploration of these same themes. Sex and its connection to death, and the problems that both pose for modern man (shorn as he is from the transcendent), produces the nihilistic desire to evade them by means of technology. The individualism ushered in by the Enlightenment is at the heart of the desire to escape sex and death, as the character Bruno explains to his brother Michel:
The growth of individualism brought about an increased consciousness of death. Individualism gives rise to freedom, the sense of self, the need to distinguish oneself and be superior to others. A rational society like the one in Brave New World can defuse the struggle. . . Sexual rivalry—a metaphor for mastery over time through reproduction—has no more reason to exist in a society where the connection between sex and reproduction has been broken. But Huxley forgets about individualism. He doesn’t understand that sex, even stripped of its link with reproduction, still exists—not as a pleasure principle but as a form of narcissistic differentiation. . . the metaphysical mutation brought about by modern science leads to individuation, vanity, malice and desire.
There are some correctives, some humanist touches which help people forget about death. In Brave New World, it’s tranquilizers and antidepressants; in Island it’s hallucinogens, meditation and some vague Hindu mysticism. In our own society, people try to use a mixture of both.3
Indeed. These means for escaping the consciousness of death (while simultaneously leaving behind the vicissitudes of sex) can be added to the litany from earlier in this piece. The deep connection between sex and death, then, isn’t an idiosyncratic teaching of the fathers of the Church,4 but an observable feature of reality even in the midst of technological progress.
While technology enables man to imagine, and realize in certain limited ways, freedom from the processes of sex and death (and other sorts of limitations), it’s an illusion that this constitutes a mastery over nature. More precisely, it’s an inversion of the truth.
This is the contention of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. What we call man’s mastery of nature is really “a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” This process also takes place, not only concurrently, but through time:
Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors.5
But when power is the only principle there is no distinguishing right from wrong, just from unjust, good from bad. When all of that is swept away, all that remains are the whims of sub-rational human desires and impulses. Those who would wield Nature in this manner end up being wielded by it.
The process of subjecting an object to scientific inquiry is a reductive process which strips the object of its qualitative properties. Insofar as science de-mystifies an object or process, it does so by abstracting it from its situated context in order to render it quantifiable. In other words, in order for man to reign over nature, he first has to de-nature Nature. This is analogous to “sexual liberation” being a euphemism for the reign of a kind of de-sexualized sex. And when the object of scientific inquiry is man himself, the end result of stripping away his qualia to subject him to scientific scrutiny and manipulation, is de-humanized man.
Nature, rather than falling prostrate before our mighty power, ascends to the throne and seizes the crown and scepter. In reducing himself to the level of mere nature, the ‘man’ who wields power at the end of the process is no longer fully human.
It is the Magician’s bargain: give up your soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us.6
Some of the more consistent scientific modernists have swallowed this poison pill and embrace posthumanism as a necessary correlate of their worldview. Nature must reign and man must fall, giving way to the world of the posthuman. The sentimental humanism of scientists like Richard Dawkins is clearly a holdover from the pre-scientific age resulting in an impure mixture of elements. Science, if she is to truly to rule as the goddess she is, must transcend the merely human.
This was seen clearly by Houellebecq in The Elementary Particles as well. The way to escape the fraught and perilous human world of sex and death is by overcoming that which is human altogether. The problems of social atomization and the anxiety and ennui produced in mass quantities by industrial and technological civilization are to be remedied by yet more technology, all the way up to replacing man. It’s an elegant solution if man holds no special significance in the universe—but an abominably demonic one if he does (and he does).
But this endgame isn’t difficult to imagine. The trajectory in that direction has been established. It also isn’t difficult to imagine humanity, at least of that part of it in the modern West, docilely going along with it. In the haunting closing of his novel, Houellebecq paints the picture of a future where this has largely transpired, and the aftermath:
[H]umanity should be honored to be ‘the first species in the universe to develop the conditions for its own replacement.’. . . There remains some humans of the old species, particularly in areas long dominated by religious doctrine. Their reproductive levels fall year by year, however, and at present their extinction seems inevitable. Contrary to doomsayers, this extinction is taking place peaceably, despite occasional acts of violence, which also continue to decline. It has been surprising to note the meekness, resignation, perhaps even secret relief with which humans have consented to their own passing.7
Doesn’t sound exceptionally far-fetched and, as with all good sci-fi, the groundwork for the future realization of that vision exists in society now.
Earlier in the novel Houellebecq observes that “man is not made to grasp death; neither his own nor that of others.” Man’s consciousness of death, therefore, is the root of his anxiety and inability to live well. That death must be defeated in order to live fully and virtuously is at root a Christian dogma. Christ conquers death and Christians participate in his resurrection by faith. But the desire to escape death by way of technological posthumanism is not a substitute, materialistic version of transcendence, but the declension of man to the sub-human realm of pure ‘nature’, denuded of grace. It is man returning to the realm of the purely animal, however sophisticated an animal it may be. The posthuman is to the human what demons are to angels: the delirious idolatry of the individual will to power, raised against God, resulting in your own destruction. Cast out of heaven, you are sentenced to commune only with the lowest orders of reality.
While my preferred alternative to this is an approach to science and technology which keeps them subjected to the higher orders of reality (i.e. divine law), it may be naive to assume that these scientific principles don’t automatically trend in this direction. This is why the Luddite impulse is perennially appealing for those of a traditional bent. For a concise précis of this view I’ll leave you with a Chinese proverb, as related by Werner Heisenberg:
‘I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things [i.e. machines]; I am ashamed to use them.’8
- When people speak of the ‘hypersexualization’ of contemporary culture—a very real phenomenon—we should keep in mind that the ‘sex’ here is itself de-sexualized. It is the ‘sex’ of pornography, masturbation, intentional sterility, homosexuality etc. ↩
- Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, ‘Clone Story’, p. 96. ↩
- Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles. ↩
- Returning to the fathers of the Church, despite the fact that sex and death are results of the fall, they perhaps surprisingly don’t reject them in toto. Sex is of course blessed in the context of marriage, as both a means for uniting husband and wife in one flesh bond of love, and propagating the race. Remembrance of death, meanwhile, is a central ascetic practice and a means of purifying yourself of the passions. Contrary to our cultural practice of sanitizing and professionalizing death care, Orthodox monks unearth their fellow monk’s skulls and keep them to help them remember death. Christ and his virgin mother reconfigure both sex and death. Rather than taking on some asexual form of humanity, Christ becomes incarnate as a man with all that entails, faces temptation and never succumbs. His mother, similarly, remains absolutely pure and chaste as a human woman. And Christ enters into the grave to defeat death by death. In so doing, death itself, when approached reverently and in obedience and faith, becomes a portal to union with Christ and resurrection. In the Church sex and death aren’t rejected, but transfigured from their fallen reality and filled with new potential under the reign of Christ. ↩
- C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. ↩
- Ibid., p. 71. ↩
- Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles. ↩
- as cited in Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy. ↩