Sex, dystopia, utopia: (techno)cultural mediation and sexual pleasure in recent novels by Michel Houellebecq, Margaret Atwood and Ali Smith

Ryle, Martin (2008) Sex, dystopia, utopia: (techno)cultural mediation and sexual pleasure in recent novels by Michel Houellebecq, Margaret Atwood and Ali Smith. Critical Engagements, 2 (2). ISSN 1754-0984

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Abstract

The article offers close critical readings of common elements and themes in three recent novels: Michel Houellebecq's Atomised (1999; English translation 2000), Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003), and Ali Smith's The Accidental (2005). In all three novels, mediated and commodified sex is made the focus of questions about the individual's (in)capacity to preserve autonomy via a vis dominant social and cultural norms. Huxley's Brave New World is a pertinent and more or less explicit intertext for them all, and the utopian/dystopian horizon implied by the comparison with Huxley is invoked both in the novels and in this reading of them. The article refers to cultural-theoretical discussion of its general themes, and to recent academic studies of the 'pornification' of culture. Houellebecq's Atomised is considered first. Bruno, his main protagonist, is both normal and pathological: he is the predictable product of the emptily hedonistic counter-culture of the 1960s, now reworked into the sexual consumerism of mainstream European commodity culture. Likewise, in Atwood's novel, the consumption of tendentially violent pornography is an integral part of a commodified, consumerist and environmentally destructive global monoculture: Atwood's world is derived like Houellebecq's from the extrapolation of presently dominant tendencies. Smith's novel is presented as a utopian variation on similar themes. She distinguishes the pornographic from the erotic, placing on the idea of bodily autonomy and integrity a stress that runs counter to the advocacy of the cyborg that we find in the influential work of Donna Haraway. Smith's utopian, feminist and hedonist critique of contemporary society is related to her more positive assessment of the counter-culture of the 1960s and of its continuing political potential.

Item Type: Article
Schools and Departments: School of English > English
Depositing User: Martin Ryle
Date Deposited: 06 Feb 2012 19:38
Last Modified: 03 Jul 2012 15:13
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/21543
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