Surplus consciousness

Surplus consciousness Houellebecq’s novels of ideas

Martin ryle

Michel Houellebecqʼs fiction is said to be selling better outside France than that of any French novelist since Camus. Atomised (1999) and Platform (2001), his two more recent novels, appeared in English within a year of their publication. [1] The comparison some reviews have drawn with Camus is of limited help in reading Houellebecq, but it opens questions about 1960s ʻalienationʼ, critical consciousness and complicity, which I discuss below. While divided about his literary importance, reviewers agree that Houellebecq, like Camus, is a novelist of ideas; and that his work is a polemical critique of contemporary French and European society. Some have placed him in a line of French reaction traceable back to Céline; others see him as denouncing global capitalism. These are not necessarily incompatible judgements.

Houellebecqʼs novels, though provocative rather than didactic, indeed foreground ideas. One need not make too much of the references to Comte in Platform, or the dismissive remarks on postwar French theory in Atomised. [2] More to the point, his fiction tests the implications of Foucauldian celebration of bodies and pleasures, and seems to dispense with the ʻdeepʼ subject along with its ethical and affective corollaries. ʻReflexive transcendenceʼ has gone, Baudrillard declared long ago: ʻtoday the scene and the mirror no longer exist; instead, there is a screen and network … a non-reflecting surface, an immanent surface where operations unfold.… [The] psychological dimension has in a sense vanished.ʼ [3] Houellebecqʼs characterization mimics this depthlessness. The narrator of his first novel, Whatever, declares he will not ʻcharm [the reader] with subtle psychological observationsʼ, which are obsolescent in a world of media, gadgets, homogeneity (p. 14). ʻIt is wrong to pretend that human beings are unique, that they carry with them an irreducible individuality.… As often as not it is futile to wear yourself out trying to distinguish individual destinies and personalitiesʼ, the narrator of Platform insists (p. 181). However, in reading the novels we may come to construe depthlessness not just as symptomatic condition, but as lack.

This ambiguous engagement with contemporary idées reçues is central to Houellebecqʼs project. ʻIdeasʼ in the general sense of opinionated statements – about death, the body, feminism, ʻraceʼ, culture, the sex industry, economics, sociobiology, designer goods – crowd his work. The narrativeʼs background is generally given in a polemical or ironical tone:

It is interesting to note that the ʻsexual revolutionʼ is usually portrayed as a communist utopia, whereas in fact it was simply another stage in the rise of the individual. As the lovely phrase ʻhearth and homeʼ suggests, the couple and the family were to be the last bastion of primitive communism in a liberal society. The sexual revolution was to destroy the last unit separating the individual from the market.

The destruction continues to this day. (Atomised, pp. 135f.)A brochure in my hotel room gave me some information about the history of the resort, which was the product of a wonderful human adventure: that of Bertrand Le Moal, backpacker avant la lettre who, having fallen in love with this place, had ʻlaid down his packʼ here at the end of the 60s. With furious energy, and the help of his Karen friends, little by little he had built this ʻecological paradiseʼ, which an international clientele could now enjoy. (Platform, p. 66)The protagonists voice opinions constantly, in firstperson narration, monologues and dialogues. Elsewhere, their taciturnity may issue an implied challenge: ʻUsually, when I left the office, Iʼd take in a peepshow. It set me back fifty francs, maybe seventy if I was slow to ejaculate. Watching pussy in motion cleared my headʼ (Platform, p. 17). The perspectival, diachronic engagement specific to fiction-reading, based on a developing interpretation of character and of plot, is interrupted by demands for the kind of response proper to journalism, polemic, critique: immediate, decontextualized political-ideological response. No doubt this strongly ideological colouring is what has led English reviewers to lament that Brits donʼt know how to produce that kind of novel. Houellebecq makes no show of cordoning the literary–aesthetic off from other discourses: rather than seeking the conscious aesthetic difference of the modernist artwork, he presses fiction up against neighbouring kinds of writing, much as nineteenth-century realists did.

In particular, in Houellebecq writer and reader are involved in unpleasant sexual and ʻracialʼ discourses. Quasi-pornographic representation, normalized as the everyday consciousness of the protagonists, invades the text in Atomised and especially in Platform. Houellebecq was unsuccessfully charged with provocation à la haine (incitement to hatred) for derogatory comments on Islam made in an interview (he called it ʻthe dumbest religionʼ), and his novels press heavily on questions of religious ethnicity and represent scenes of actual and imagined interracial violence. [4]

In staging these themes, Houellebecq risks the charge of complicity. No implied author can be located, aloof from the narration, guiding our responses. Therefore we cannot exonerate Houellebecq from the charge of writing racist and misogynistic discourses from which he never clearly dissociates himself. He has made flippant, offensive comments on some issues his work raises, though these are probably best regarded as provocations. [5] His protagonists can be seen as representative types, ʻfigures … à la fois banales et monstrueusesʼ invented to typify contemporary attitudes and behaviours (to quote a review in LʼHumanité). They may for all that be close to the biographical Houellebecq. [6] Nothing in this exempts the reader from making judgements: on the contrary, it is by goading us to judge for ourselves that the novels sustain moral– political tension and produce an unsettled experience of reading. The view that Houellebecqʼs work is ʻa mirror to the “Who cares?” attitudes of late postmodernismʼ [7] simplistically mistakes the anomic and cynical attitudes sometimes struck by his protagonists (and by their author) for the final effect of his books on an attentive reader.

Fredric Jameson has lamented that writers, critics and readers are now all ʻdeeply immersed in postmodernist spaceʼ, so that ʻdistance in general (including “critical distance” in particular)ʼ has been abolished. Jameson has invoked, as antidote to this loss, some ʻas yet unimaginable new mode of representingʼ that would allow us to map our political co-ordinates again. [8] Houellebecqʼs fiction makes no show of anything ʻunimaginableʼ, if by that term we understand some immediately striking aesthetic–formal innovation; it reads easily, draws on everyday journalistic and anecdotal styles, depends on straightforward narrative development. It is quite distinct from that line of postwar French neo-avant-garde theory and writing that has sustained a link with modernism. But Houellebecq has produced something ʻnewʼ, along Jamesonʼs map-making lines. They are not ʻpostmodern fictionsʼ in the terms developed by literary theorists, but his novels, in their ambiguous engagement with contemporary subjectivity and culture, challenge us to decide whether they – and we – are merely ʻimmersedʼ in this lifeworld or ʻdistancedʼ from it.Platform, especially, insists on its subjectsʼ historical and geographical location as members of a relatively privileged class in the European metropolis. This class imagines itself as ʻuniversalʼ, in the sense that its ʻvaluesʼ are sure to conquer and absorb – ʻculturallyʼ, of course – whatever resistance they encounter travelling the world. Meanwhile, however, its self-reproduction depends on globalized material inequality. Tourism exactly represents this contradiction: beach tourism, adventure tourism, eco-tourism, sex tourism. Babette and Léa, fellow-tourists in Thailand with the narrator of Platform, work for a PR agency in the Île-de-France. He finds out their salary, and comments to the reader that though it might be better, it is still ʻpretty good. About twenty-five times the salary of a metalworker in Surat Thani [in Thailand]. Economics is a mysteryʼ (p. 83). Platform centres on tourism managed and marketed from Paris: Paris, with its particularities, but Paris as exemplary metropolis – with its own peripheral zone, of course: the salaried employees of the Aurore group are advised to travel home by taxi if they have to work late. The area where the head office is located is dangerous, the grounds are patrolled by private security guards (p. 198). Surat Thani, meanwhile, with its 42,000 inhabitants, ʻis distinguished, according to the guidebooks, by the fact that it is of no interest whateverʼ (p. 82).

Beyond its specifically French dimensions, Houellebecqʼs work speaks to these more generally European and ʻWesternʼ contexts, social and literary-theoretical. In what follows, I take up the comparison with Camus and the relation between protagonists, society and ideas. I then consider the uses of quasi-pornography and what this means for the subject; and assess what ʻcritical distanceʼ Houellebecq establishes vis-à-vis the representations of interracial violence that recur in his writing. I conclude by situating Platform in relation to some general discussions of fiction, modernism and critique.


ʻFather died last yearʼ; ʻMother died yesterdayʼ – the opening of Platform echoes that of LʼÉtranger (The Outsider), the novel of Camus which Houellebecqʼs work might seem most to resemble. [9] Both protagonists, Camusʼs Meursault and Houellebecqʼs Michel Renault, are also the narrators, so the relation we form with them will modify our interpretation of the texts. [10] At the outset, we may note that neither shows what is thought of as a proper response to death: is this a personal failing, or a challenge to hypocritical bourgeois mores?

Camusʼs book seeks to sustain the latter reading.

Meursaultʼs relation to the society he lives in becomes explicitly antagonistic. His failure to display signs of grief at the funeral is read, he later discovers, as evidence of ʻgreat callousnessʼ. We are to read it otherwise, as the sign of authenticity. Believing he has been condemned to death, not for killing an unnamed Arab in a beach fight, but because he has refused to observe conventional etiquette, Meursault hopes to be greeted, going to the scaffold, with ʻhowls of execrationʼ from the crowd. [11] We may well reject the romantic-egotistical presuppositions of that attitude, as René Girard does in a stringent analysis. [12] However, this is to refuse the principle on which the novel offers itself to be read. Meursaultʼs ʻoutsiderlyʼ demeanour must be taken to imply some radical if never-formulated critique. This was certainly the basis of the reputation The Outsider gained in Britain during the 1960s, where Colin Wilsonʼs much-discussed 1956 book of the same title accorded an important place to it and helped pave the way for its many Penguin printings in the subsequent decade. ʻThe Outsiderʼ is the man (Wilsonʼs outsiders are always men) who ʻcannot accept life as it isʼ, who ʻsees “too deep and too much”ʼ, and who is ʻcut off from other people by an intelligence which ruthlessly destroys their valuesʼ. [13]

Michel Renault, like Meursault, declines to view the body; he too turns aside from death. Platform tells us less about the funeral than about what Renault watches afterwards on his dead fatherʼs ʻ32-inch Sony widescreen with surround sound and an integrated DVD playerʼ: Xena, Warrior Princess; a quiz show; a made-for-TV film, with period-pastoral sex; and, as he dozes off, a programme about ʻsilurids – huge fish with no scales which had become common in French rivers as a result of global warmingʼ (pp. 3–10). Nothing suggests our heroʼs comportment is found eccentric. He makes ʻan excellent impressionʼ at the ceremony, with his habitual sober dress and ʻsullen expressionʼ, his head ʻbowed a little to listen to a Christian funeralhymn medleyʼ (p. 5). All this offers no reason to think performance and authenticity are opposed. A state of indifference is mirrored in performances nobody invests with much meaning. It is nevertheless still open to readers to feel there is something lacking, some moment of awe or of reflection, which death ought to evoke but which finds no register, subjective or ceremonial or discursive, in the chapter.

Here, then, if there is a critique of ʻsocietyʼ it must also call in question the behaviour and attitudes of the protagonist, who is by no means the Camusian outsider-as-dissident. And if there is such a critique, the reader has to produce it, and take responsibility for it, without overt prompting or support in the text. We will be in the same position when we confront later behaviours and opinions: Renaultʼs visits to Thai prostitutes; his affair in Paris with Valérie and the account given of their sexual pleasures and preferences; and, in the novelʼs major narrative development, the coupleʼs participation in the development of ʻfriendly tourismʼ. This is the euphemism for a new project in which dealings between European visitors and local people willing to sell sex will be facilitated rather than merely condoned by the tour operators. Valérie and her colleague Jean-Yves, newly headhunted for the Aurore group, set up and lead the project. Renault returns to Thailand with them to sample the first resort in the new chain, which is murderously attacked by turbaned bombers and gunmen in the bookʼs climax.

How are we to read Renault, through whom we must read all this? The ʻ1960sʼ figuration, Renault as an outsider who sees through bourgeois hypocrisy, is certainly untenable. To invert this, to read him as a moral–political reprobate and a complicit apologist for whatever he recounts (as we may read Michel in Whatever and Bruno Clément in Atomised), is oversimple: he wittily criticizes many aspects of the world he describes. On the questions of sexuality, selfhood and the marketable body, it is a certain blankness in his narration, rather than any explicit commentary, that we have to interpret.

In any case, the autonomy of ʻopinionsʼ tends to be undermined by the emphasis placed on character as produced in a matrix of determinations: ʻThe three of usʼ – Jean-Yves, Valérie and Renault – ʻwere caught up in a social system like insects in a block of amberʼ (p. 165). Whether we hold people accountable for opinions presented as circumstantially determined is something the reader must decide (and this, of course, involves a choice between humanist and anti-humanist understandings of the subject). In all the novels, lifesituations are summed up with less emphasis on individualizing traits than on socio-economic constraints and opportunities. Even exceptional moments of social mobility are historically contingent. ʻMartin Ceccaldiʼs singular destiny was entirely symptomatic of the role played by secularism, throughout the Third Republic, in integrating citizens into French society and promoting technological progress. His teacher quickly realised that he was an exceptional pupilʼ (Atomised, p. 25).

The effect is of a positivistic determinism. (This may be one reason for the novelʼs references to Comte.) Once the subject acquiesces in the truth of this ʻdeterminationʼ, and concedes, too willingly, that personal dispositions and sentiments are beyond the selfʼs control, the result is self-reflexive irony. One example. Renault, recently moved to Chinatown, has been wondering whether to buy a gun:

Curiously, I was not afraid for my own sake. Itʼs true I had very little contact with the barbarian hordes, except perhaps occasionally at lunchtime when I went for a walk around the Forum des Halles, where the subtle infiltration of the security forces… eliminated all danger, in theory. So I wandered casually through the reassuring topography of uniforms; I felt as though I was in Thoiry safari park. In the absence of the forces of law and order, I knew, I would be easy prey, though of little interest; very conventional, my middle-management uniform had little to tempt them. For my part, I felt no attraction for … the dangerous classes; I didnʼt understand them, and made no attempt to do so. I didnʼt sympathise with their passions nor with their values. For myself, I wouldnʼt have lifted a finger to own a Rolex, a pair of Nikes or a BMW Z3; in fact, I had never succeeded in identifying the slightest difference between designer goods and non-designer goods. In the eyes of the world, I was clearly wrong.… Through my blindness, however involuntary, I set myself apart from a living human reality powerful enough to incite both devotion and crime. (pp. 270f.)The passage turns back, implicitly, on itself. Its self-awareness is impeccably sophisticated; its ʻselfcriticismʼ (ʻvery little contact with the barbarian hordesʼ, ʻI set myself apart from a living human realityʼ) is ironic complacency. The knowledge of the ʻoutsiderʼ was celebrated in the 1960s as ʻalienationʼ – the term being used, in a sentimental lay understanding, to denote not subjection to material and ideological determination but a state of emancipated critical enlightenment. Believing oneself outside, one occupied an imaginary Archimedean point. [14] Since then we have seen the destruction in theory of such humanistic positions. But once critical consciousness apprehends the subject as fully embedded in the social, can it apprehend itself as anything but surplus consciousness, ineluctably produced, unable to effect anything? The question has particular implications for those who work, as Renault does, in the ʻcultural sectorʼ. The themes of determination and complicity arise in relation to the contested autonomy of the artwork, which depends on the idea that consciousness can transcend the determinations that it knows. Renault for his part states early in the novel, after sketching his day in the office where he organizes the financing of art shows: ʻMy conclusion, henceforth, is that art cannot change livesʼ (p. 16).

I shall return to this. Meanwhile, we should note that a novel confers dialogic power even on the most banal statement. Because they are acts of communication with a reader, the most blankly positivistic discourses tend to become self-subverting. Told that Michel Djerzinski ʻate a Monoprix ready-meal – monkfish in parsley sauce, from their Gourmet rangeʼ (Atomised, p. 14), we enter into an unspoken conversation (with the author, the narrator, the character, ourselves): on solitude and sociability, on how when a putatively complex need is met in this pre-packaged way part of its potential content is left unsatisfied, until perhaps the need shrinks. As Sartre noted in Nausea, telling a story imparts to every event, even the most unremarkable, the significance of its connection with an ending: nothing is ʻsuperfluousʼ, everything is ʻa piece of information whose value we will understand later onʼ. [15] Houellebecq, constantly interpolating ideas and opinions, provokes us to respond to these as valuable events and to produce our own commentary even on actions left without comment. The closed circuit of ironic complicity may be broken – as it may be merely extended – when readers reflect on whether their own forms of consciousness match those figured in the text.

Pornography and ‘islam’

It is part of the ʻvanishingʼ of the ʻpsychological dimensionʼ in Platform that the affair between Renault and Valérie, although Renault thinks of it as a love affair offering tenderness and intimacy, is represented largely through its bodily-sexual aspect, rendered more or less in the language of mainstream pornography: the language which in English is found in the ʻconfessionsʼ pages of top-shelf mags – ʻheterosexualʼ, maleauthored, relentlessly orgasmic, focused on physical impulses, movements and reactions. [16] As time passes, Renault and Valérie, thanks partly to her obliging sense of ʻthe different things that keep male desire aliveʼ (p. 207), go in for the kinds of scene canonical to porn. In Cuba, they pay a hotel chambermaid $40 to join them in bed (pp. 212f.). Then comes partner-sharing in Paris partouze clubs, sex in public places (they visit an SM club, too, but this repels them). Perhaps a tenth of the novel consists of sex scenes; the formulaic repetitionwith-variation is again integral to the porn genre. The English paperback cover features a semi-arty seminude. Renault (p. 89) reminds readers that a man can jerk off to a book (he makes do with a scene in John Grishamʼs The Firm). Its putative sexiness is part of the marketing, and readability, of Platform.

However, this does not make the novel pornographic. The text incorporates the language of porn directly, whenever sexual activity is represented, as the way the narrator-protagonist sees things: it is not bracketed off as a sub-discourse, as commonly happens when literary novelists allude to it (for example, in Martin Amisʼs London Fields). Houellebecq ignores the supposed boundary between literature and pornography which has helped sustain the notion that porn is marginal, even transgressive, despite its cultural and economic centrality in societies like ours. In this novelistic context, the quasi-pornographic itself, rather than what it represents, eventually becomes the object of representation. Juxtaposed directly with other kinds of writing, spoken by a literary-fictional rather than pornographic subject, the language of porn in Platform speaks out its own terms: its intolerance of bodily ageing and imperfection, its censorship of whatever thoughts and feelings might trouble bodily pleasure, the hostility which is the obverse of its adoring fetishization. ʻShe had beautiful breasts, the slut, clearly visible under her see-through top … I stared attentively at the two sluts so I could forget them foreverʼ (pp. 39f.). It speaks of its own linguistic poverty, its ignorance of the erotic.Platform makes us respond to porn not just as language of representation, but as a discourse forming sexualities and selves. It presents us with a happy couple (ʻWe could fuck with loveʼ: p. 164) who live according to its formulae. Its claim to historical representativeness depends on us seeing Renault and Valérie as ʻtypicalʼ, in Lukácsʼs sense: ʻa character is typical … when his innermost being is determined by objective forces at work in societyʼ. [17] Their sexual life, while unusual, is that of a certain fashionable elite; there is a sufficient basis of realism for the relationship to stand metonymically as an image of contemporary metropolitan life. Beyond that, their deliciously anonymous pleasures are a figure, invoking metaphorically all those widely diffused pleasurepractices which involve acceptance of or preference for the solipsistic, the anonymous, the momentary. This is a dance of bodies and pleasures for a subject conceived as two-dimensional ʻscreenʼ or ʻnetworkʼ, without the ʻpsychological dimensionʼ. Sex tourism is emblematic of how such forms of metropolitan pleasure are becoming or may become hegemonic everywhere.

The reader is ultimately prompted, in my judgement, to see the union of Valérie and Renault as ʻbanal and monstrousʼ. She attracts him because of her self-abnegating complaisance: nothing that happens later need modify his initial dismissive assessment that she has ʻa sort of canine docility … she was just submissive in general, and maybe just ready to look for a new masterʼ (pp. 42f.). The coupleʼs relation, even if we grant its happiness, amounts to a ruthless (though, again, ʻtypicalʼ) égoisme à deux: sex and food and tourism fill what time is left over from well-paid, intensive bureaucratic–entrepreneurial work. Almost the last thought Renault has about Valérie is that she is ʻa good predator … and she had chosen me to share her lairʼ (p. 329).

We may ask whether the subject enjoying just these pleasures should be understood in terms of lack or default, as well as happiness and privilege. We may ask if other kinds of relationship are preferable, and on what grounds. But here we are caught between incompatible discourses, both useless: the barely visible ghost of a ʻmoralʼ tradition originating in Catholic familism (this ghost stalks more visibly through certain pages of Atomised) and the language that dwells exclusively on bodily surfaces and performances. On questions of virtue, the good life, self-realization, the first says what no one believes any more. The second offers only ʻthe humanist proposition: striving to maximise individual pleasure without causing suffering to anotherʼ (Atomised, p. 262) – which can tell us nothing about what ʻpleasureʼ is. If readers want to excogitate some third way, they are going to have to do it for themselves, starting from premisses that Houellebecq barely registers.

We may well resent the pressure to form judgements in the field of sexual practice, since reluctance to do so has been a defining trait of the intelligentsia formed by the 1960s. However, this reluctance has been in constant tension with another defining trait, namely a new political consciousness about gender relations. The moment which freed sexualities from old judgemental discourses also helped form the ʻsecond waveʼ of feminism with its new forms of judgement. A humanist and existentialist feminism, reshaping gendered subjects in accordance with their own projects of reciprocity, was one legacy of that moment, and provides one historical starting point for tracing a ʻthird wayʼ between moralistic paternalism and solipsistic relativism. But Houellebecqʼs characters register feminism (if they register it at all) as a moment in the past (ʻ1968ʼ), a spent moment. We live among its ʻlast dismaying dregsʼ. Valérie, a successful professional, hardly refers to feminism. [18] Platform, like Atomised, provokes judgements just because its sexual narration – blankly pornographic, or blankly positivistic: ʻI took in a peepshowʼ – ends up foregrounding its own absence of ethical and affective terms. In the booksʼ narrative development and their framework of ideas ʻ1968ʼ is linked to the contemporary moment of peepshows, sex clubs, Internet contacts, globalized sex tourism. The middle term is not the new ethical–political body which feminism failed to produce, but the body newly available to pleasure, the body as a ʻsurfaceʼ or ʻscreenʼ. To this, no inner being corresponds or should be made to correspond. To make oneʼs sexual body a commodity is then merely a rational choice – as Valérie points out, the $40 she gives the hotel chambermaid in Cuba is for the maid equivalent to a monthʼs pay (p. 213); and such a choice involves nothing different in principle from other market exchanges.

ʻTherefore,ʼ I went on, ʻyou have several hundred million Westerners who have everything they want but no longer manage to obtain sexual satisfaction. … On the other hand, you have several billion people who have nothing, who are starving, who die young … and who have nothing to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality.

Itʼs simple, really simple to understand: itʼs an ideal trading opportunity.ʼ (p. 242)In ending Platform with the attack by Islamic terrorists, Houellebecq anticipated 11 September 2001 and the Bali nightclub bombing, which happened after it appeared. The suggestion that violent political Islam is now global capitalismʼs main antagonist has become a commonplace. Houellebecqʼs representation of Islam traces this depressing global battle line into the metropolitan territory of France (which has the highest Muslim population in Europe, both absolutely and proportionally). [19] His books reveal, partly through their own complicity in it, the outline of a new ʻorientalismʼ, based no longer on colonial power–knowledge but on postcolonial metropolitan ignorance and fantasy. The complicity needs to be emphasized and criticized. In France, Houellebecq has been made to leave the leftish ʻPerpendiculaireʼ writersʼ group that he helped found. On the other hand, the review in LʼHumanité that praised Platform for its critical force, ʻrare in recent French fictionʼ, made no suggestion whatever that its representations of Islam might be thought troubling. Few Anglophone reviewers have made as much as they should have of this, either. [20]

There are incidents, real and fantasized, of racial violence and abuse in the first two novels. The protagonist of Whatever tries to persuade a colleague to stab a black youth who has gone to the beach with a white girl. He listens to but does not comment on a conversation about the bombing of a Parisian café by Arab terrorists (Whatever, pp. 16–20, 19ff.). Bruno, in Atomised, masturbates in front of a ʻpretty little Arab girlʼ who is one of his pupils, and writes what he knows is racist propaganda (pp. 235–7). Both protagonists are presented as unbalanced, destructive individuals, compensating for their anxieties through displays of racialized resentment. Michel Renault, who in several places expresses crude anti-Islamic views, is, however, a more passive and less unequivocally negative figure than his predecessors.

More significantly, some of the authorial choices in Platform incorporate a hostile representation of Islam into the structure of the book. In all three novels, fantasies of racial violence are attributed to white Europeans, whereas acts of racial violence are committed by Arabs and Muslims; but this is of much greater significance in Platform, where terroristic killing does not remain on the periphery but engulfs the central characters. In Platform, ethnic hostility is no longer expressed only by the narrator–protagonist. Islamic culture is twice attacked in speeches by minor characters. An Egyptian geneticist makes a brief, otherwise unmotivated appearance to denounce Islam and monotheism, in terms close to those used by Houellebecq in the Lire interview (pp. 250f.). Near the start of the book, Aïcha, sister of the Arab youth arrested for killing Renaultʼs father, accuses her male relatives of being ʻstupidʼ: visiting Mecca has made her father intolerable, her brothers get drunk on pastis while posing as ʻguardians of the one true faithʼ (p. 22). She is going to leave the family home and continue her nursing studies in Paris.

Aïcha, a young Muslim woman trying to escape patriarchal bondage, is the very same figure who is to be liberated by being banned from wearing the hijab and assimilated to French secular society. The family configuration Houellebecq has chosen is calculated to enforce the claims of the French Republic as the standard-bearer of liberty, secular reason and womenʼs emancipation. If the issue is posed in these abstract terms – secular liberalism versus theocracy – plenty of us will, of course, side with the former. However, the abstraction represses, and is designed to repress, any reference to colonial history, specifically the Algerian war, where assimilation and metropolitan power were all too visibly linked in the formula: ʻAlgeriansʼ must be French, and which disproved once again the idea that Europeans only ever dream of killing Arabs – or that they kill them like Meursault, ʻinnocentlyʼ. [21] Colonial history, which brought so many Arabs and Muslims to live in France, overdetermines the meaning of every sign of Islamic identity there today, and means that the abstract truth that religion is distinct from ʻraceʼ is concretely a half-truth at best. But none of this is even distantly alluded to in Platform. Instead, the author has produced a historically decontextualized trope, flattering to the self-image of la patrie.

Other aspects of Platform are less comforting to the good conscience of the metropolitan elite. The portrait of a privileged class immersed in but cut off from a world of violence and dispossession (ʻno contact with the barbarian hordesʼ) is strengthened, rather than weakened, by the refusal to stage any humanistic and redemptive encounter with the ʻotherʼ. We can trace this refusal or failure in the narrative line which seems to begin when Renault meets Aïcha. She has had ʻintimate relationsʼ with his father, which is why her brother killed him – probably inadvertently, going further than he had meant to. But Renault takes no interest in the trial, whose outcome we never learn (Camusian indifferentism is still in the background here). When she comes to collect her things from the house, Renault talks to her, but only about the quiz show he has been watching: ʻIʼve always admired [the host] Julien Lepersʼ, he tells her. ʻThe contestants are human beings to himʼ (pp. 6f.). Later they meet briefly again. Renault feels ʻa certain attraction to Muslim vaginasʼ, and congratulates himself, on no discernible grounds, for having made ʻa connectionʼ in their brief talk (pp. 21f.). Later still, her name is mentioned a last time when he dreams he is fucking on the Métro with ʻan Arab girl.… She didnʼt look anything like Aïcha, at least I donʼt think soʼ (p. 83). This scene is darkly echoed in a later incident when a colleague of Valérie is viciously raped by a gang, probably West Indian, on the Métro (p. 197). The implication at the personal level is plain enough: that Renault is incapable of making any real ʻconnectionʼ. Thematically, the rape connects with numerous fleeting references to the inequality, dispossession and danger at the heart of the metropolis, and then connects at another level to the novelʼs major theme: that ʻconsensualʼ prostitution in the tourist periphery, where Europeans live out sex fantasies and enjoy the exotic ʻotherʼ, is part of that same system of inequality, against which brutal violence is a predictable protest.

complicity, critical distance, ‘culture’

Jameson asked a dozen years ago whether postmodern culture necessarily lacked critical distance. Referring back to a modernism still able to resist incorporation, still endowed with potential critical alterity, he wondered what space remained for resistance, in the subject or the cultural sphere. This led him to speculate about an ʻunimaginableʼ new political and pedagogical art, ʻwhich seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global systemʼ. [22]

Critical definitions and discussions of the postmodern novel have stressed its ludic, metafictional and para-historiographical character. [23] The histories (re)written by canonical postmodern fictions are often imaginary, speaking in the ʻheteroglotʼ voices suppressed or marginalized in dominant literary and historiographical forms. This, evidently, is one way to attempt the kind of ʻplacingʼ and mapping that Jameson advocates. In these terms, Houellebecqʼs work is not an example of ʻpostmodern fictionʼ any more than of modernist distance through difficulty. It uses realist means, resorting neither to metafictional play nor to pastiche, and represents dominant, metropolitan subjects. However, there is every reason for continuing to engage with the dominant: as Bryan Palmer has insisted, contra Robert Young, ʻthe “West,” as the site of capitalismʼs late twentieth-century power, is not, in any meaningful sense, in the throes of dissolution.ʼ [24] Houellebecq in his critique of the European ʻWestʼ says very little directly about the sufferings or aspirations of the marginalized (and certainly does not produce the optimistic–progressive image of ʻinclusivenessʼ favoured by British arts and cultural policy). His focus is on the pleasurable lives of well-off contemporary Europeans (who include most of his likely readers), our opportunities and capacities for pleasure being foregrounded as what is most historically ʻtypicalʼ about us. Yet despite and because of this focus, his work produces a highly problematic image of the contemporary. Its ʻmapʼ of negativity, decadence and violence can be made to emerge, by way of the readerʼs labour of critique, from a discourse which in itself seems to lack any ʻdistanceʼ.

I have argued that in Houellebecq critique always depends on the reader, a reader ʻproducedʼ by the textʼs provocations and silences, but who brings to bear political and ethical sensibilities which are never explicitly registered there. ʻCultureʼ without its readers, as a delimited sphere, as an object of policy on a par, say, with sport, as a fetishized space for the ʻcreativeʼ, cannot have alterity or distance. The bureaucratic development of the ʻcultural sectorʼ is an important sub-theme in Platform. Renault describes various artworks he has had to deal with in his job: photos of police brutality in the suburbs (ʻthe artist had favoured a “fun” approach rather than the social critique youʼd expectʼ), a rubber belt embossed with three-dimensional casts of the artistʼs clitoris (pp. 16f., 302f.). He is unconvinced, and so are we, that putting reality-images in brackets like this can in itself create any critical distance. In his interview with Captain Chaumont of the Cherbourg police, Renault finds himself ʻcompletely desperate, overcome with shameʼ when asked to describe his work. However, Chaumont responds with ʻcompassion tinged with seriousnessʼ. ʻHe had an awareness of the existence of the cultural sector, a vague but definite awareness. He must have had to meet people from all walks of life in his profession; no area of society could be completely alien to himʼ (pp. 12f.). Again, this highlights the discrete location of ʻcultureʼ – its institutionalization, after modernism, as an administrative ʻsphereʼ – to suggest how just this separation makes it ineffectual.

These witty passages demonstrate that the novel, in its dialectical complexity, can get above the closed circuit of ʻcultureʼ by reflecting on it. However, they can then only show how those in the ʻcultural sectorʼ (the readers of literary novels, as well as their writers) are able to see their own backs in the mirror with the help of another mirror. Metacultural reflections can say nothing but this expected last word on ʻcultureʼ. On the largest themes of Platform, the final reference is not to culture but to politics: to the social and political interventions which might make a difference to the inequality and violence that are the context of our pleasures. Just before the attack on the resort hotel, Renault reflects as follows:

I tasted a spoonful of curried chicken with green peppers; as it happened, I could imagine doing something similar with mangoes. Jean-Yves nodded thoughtfully. I looked at Valérie: she was a good predator … and she had invited me to share her lair.… According to Immanuel Kant, human dignity consists in not accepting to be subject to laws except inasmuch as one can simultaneously consider oneself a legislator; never had such a bizarre fantasy crossed my mind. Not only did I not vote, but I had never considered elections as anything more than excellent television shows.… I was quite happy to delegate whatever powers I had. In my youth, I had encountered militants, who considered it necessary to force society to evolve in this or that direction. … What did I, for my part, have to reproach the West for? Not much… (Platform, pp. 329f.) [25] Such a subject claims he refuses to consider involving himself, even minimally, in the political practice to which ideas of critical alterity, of the autonomy of the aesthetic, ultimately refer. Can anyone as sophisticated as Renault, anyone whose sensibilities are informed by Kant, also be the subject who opts out, who is seduced by pleasure into going along with things as they are, who is glad therefore to be able to figure the self as a fly in amber? The ʻheightened sense of our place in the global systemʼ which we can elicit from Houellebecqʼs novels presses us to recognize that questions of distance, autonomy and alterity have in the end to be posed not of ʻcultureʼ but of its readers.


1. ^ I cite English translations of Houellebecqʼs novels, in paperback editions, giving page numbers in the text. Atomised (Vintage, London, 2003; Heinemann, London, 2000), trans. Frank Wynne, was originally published as Les particules élémentaires (Paris, 1999). Platform (Vintage, London, 2003; Heinemann, London, 2002), trans.

Frank Wynne, first appeared as Plateforme (Paris, 2001). Whatever was published by Serpentʼs Tail, London, in 1998, trans. Paul Hammond; the French original, Extension du domaine de la lutte, was published in Paris in 1994. An earlier version of some material later incorporated into Platform has been published under the title Lanzarote. Many websites are devoted to Houellebecq, whose personal site is [archive], I have accessed (on various dates in January and February 2004) the book reviews and other information cited here. Where applicable I give references to original printed sources. For a listing of reviews of Atomised and Platform, with links to many of the texts, see respectively [archive]

2. ^ ʻThe global ridicule inspired by the works of Foucault,

Lacan, Derrida and Deleuze, after decades of reverence, far from leaving the field clear for new ideas, simply heaped contempt on all those who were active in “human sciences”ʼ, Atomised, p. 376. For references to Comte in Platform, see pp. 178, 182f., 318. Houellebecq has edited and discussed Comteʼs work (and that of Schopenhauer).

3. ^ Jean Baudrillard, ʻThe Ecstasy of Communicationʼ, in Hal Foster, ed., Postmodern Culture, Pluto, London, 1985, pp. 126f.

4. ^ Houellebecqʼs remarks were made in an interview in Lire, September 2001 (consulted 4 February 2004 at [archive]). They were accompanied by rude remarks about monotheism generally.

The case was brought by four French Muslim groups, including the mosques of Paris and Lyon, and was heard at the Palais de Justice on 17 September 2002. Acquittal, on 22 October, was on the grounds that criticism of a belief does not amount to incitement against its adherents; it was noted that Houellebecq was in no way associated with campaigns or polemics against Muslims as a group.

The fullest narrative I have found is the polemically anti-clerical account at [archive] (consulted 4 February 2004). Salman Rushdie summarized the case against Houellebecq and wrote in his defence. See the Guardian, 28 September 2002.

5. ^ The Lire interview includes a claim that prostitution, for instance in Thailand, is not a problem, and should be properly regulated by the state in France as it is in Germany and Holland.

6. ^ Jean-Claude Lebrun, LʼHumanité, 30 August 2001 (on Plateforme). Renault, says Lebrun, is ʻone of those remarkable figures, at once banal and monstrous, that novelists invent in order to sum up in human form the distinctive traits of an epochʼ. Comparing Houellebecq with Balzac, from whose Père Goriot the epigraph to Platform is drawn, he dismisses the idea that Renault is the authorʼs double or representative. Lebrun concludes that the novel is an unusually radical attack on the globalized market. Biographical information from various of the sources I cite above indicates significant parallels between the authorʼs life and that of his protagonists (not that this licenses reductive readings of the fiction).

7. ^ In Christopher Hitchensʼs review, ʻHoly Writʼ, Atlantic Monthly, April 2003.

8. ^ Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Verso, London and New York, 1991, pp. 48, 54.

9. ^ Albert Camus, LʼÉtranger (1942), trans. Stuart Gilbert as The Outsider, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1969, p. 13; Platform, p. 3. Some reviews note this echo, but none that I have seen remarks on the parallel centrality of racial violence in the two texts – on which I comment later.

10. ^ The main protagonists of Whatever, Atomised and Platform are all called ʻMichelʼ, like the author.

11. ^ Camus, The Outsider, pp. 68, 120. When Camus commented, extra-textually, that Meursault was a man executed because he refused to weep for his mother and ʻrefused to lieʼ, he confirmed that we should read refusal as the sign of authenticity.

12. ^ René Girard, ʻCamusʼs Stranger Retriedʼ, in Harold Bloom, ed., Albert Camus, Chelsea House, New York and Philadelphia, 1989, pp. 79–105; pp. 79f. John Fletcher argues we should read the text as Meursaultʼs rhetorically proficient construction: see ʻLʼÉtranger and the New Novelʼ, in Adele King, ed., Camusʼs ʻLʼEtrangerʼ: Fifty Years On, Macmillan, London, 1992, pp. 209–20.

13. ^ Colin Wilson, The Outsider, Gollancz, London, 1956, p. 82. My 1969 Penguin edition of Camusʼs The Outsider lists eight earlier Penguin printings since 1961.The English hardback edition appeared in 1946. Adele King, fifty years after the novelʼs publication, still makes Meursault a representative of despair at the end of ʻtranscendenceʼ and of surviving ʻhuman emotions concerning the fundamental issues of lifeʼ. ʻIntroduction: After Fifty Years,

Still a Strangerʼ, in Camusʼs ʻLʼEtrangerʼ, p. 1.

14. ^ Aspects of Atomised can be read as suggesting that ʻ1968ʼ was a moment of critical alterity, subsequently incorporated. The ʻLieu du changementʼ, founded by ʻa group of ʼ68 veteransʼ as a humanist and democratic selfgoverning community, subsequently becomes a new-age summer camp, offering residential courses in humanistic therapy to businesses and organizations (pp. 113f., 119f., 125f.). Other aspects, however, suggest simple hostility to most of what ʻ1968ʼ connotes.

15. ^ Peter Brooks discusses the passage in his Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (1984), Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London, 2002, pp. 92ff. It is Brooksʼs translation that I quote.

16. ^ I canʼt speak for the French equivalences. At all events,

Houellebecqʼs claim in the Lire interview cited above that he wrote the sex scenes with especial care can hardly be taken seriously, even if he meant it seriously.

17. ^ György Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, Merlin, London, 1963, p. 122. 18. In Atomised, see especially the passages on the Cap dʼAgde nudist colony (pp. 256–66). Christiane in Atomised – as submissive as Valérie – dismisses feminism in a paragraph: see pp. 173f. See Whatever, p. 4, for ʻlast dismaying dregsʼ.

19. ^ According to the Guardian (4 February 2004, p. 15), 10 per cent of French citizens are Muslim.

20. ^ A partial exception, discussing Houellebecq among other recent critics of Islam, is Hitchensʼs ʻHoly Writʼ. I am not implying that the work should have been censored or banned, or that for his remarks in an interview Houellebecq should have been found guilty of ʻprovocationʼ.

But to uphold an authorʼs right to speak and publish is not the same as to support his political opinions against criticism.

21. ^ Judging by the collection edited by King, Camusʼs ʻLʼÉtrangerʼ, few French critics fifty years after the publication of LʼÉtranger can recognize that in killing an Arab quasi-inadvertently, Meursault did what he (and Camus) in some sense wanted to do, while being able to disavow murderous desire. None of the contributors who seriously discuss the novelʼs colonial and ʻracialʼ aspect (Christiane Achour, Alec G. Hargreaves, Michel Grimaud and Jan Rigaud) is based in France.

22. ^ Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 54. Andreas Huyssens questions this paradigm opposing modernist and postmodernist aesthetics, and indicates new possibilities for a contemporary critical-artistic practice, in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism, Macmillan, London, 1988, esp. ch. 1.

23. ^ Critics disagree about the generic character of ʻpostmodern fictionʼ and about what works the category would comprise. In generalizing for present purposes, I summarize works whose emphases differ considerably. See Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, Routledge, London and New York, 1988; Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, Routledge, London and New York, 1987; Robert Holton, Jarring Witnesses: Modern Fiction and the Representation of History, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead, 1994. For some recent criticisms of Hutcheon and McHale, see Stephen Baker, The Fiction of Postmodernity, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2000.

24. ^ Bryan Palmer, ʻCritical Theory, Historical Materialism, and the Ostensible End of Marxism: The Poverty of Theory Revisitedʼ, reprinted in Keith Jenkins, ed., The Postmodern History Reader, Routledge, London and New York, 1998: see p. 111. Palmerʼs particular target is Youngʼs White Mythologies, Routledge, London, 1990.

25. ^ In an earlier passage (p. 268), Renault mocks an article by Jacques Attali in the Nouvel Observateur arguing that the violence of young people on housing estates is a response to the flaunting display of wealth in the Champs-Elysées.

Faculty for Israeli–Palestinian Peace

AN end to occupation,

AJust Peace in Israel–Palestine

3–5 July 2004, at l’Université Libre de Bruxel es, Brussels

reconciliation today, peace tomorrow the defence of higher education in palestine which way forward? the wall, the settlements, the occupationspeakers include

Shulamit Aloni, Étienne Balibar, Naomi Chazan, Jacques Derrida, Isaac Jad, Ahmed Okasha, Jacqueline Rose, Eric Rouleau, Eyad El Sarraj, Salim Tamari, Oren Yiftachel

Senior faculty/professional


Junior faculty



US$20/€15 No one will be turned away. Send cheques (payable to Vanguard Public Foundation/ FFIPP) to FFIPP, PO Box 2091, Amherst, MA 01004, USA

For full programme, location and registration see [archive]