TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On the Dialectics of Submission and Autonomy

Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission raises important questions about the cultural crises of modernity. It reflects on the dialectics of post-secularism and post-democracy in ways that have become particularly salient in light of the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernadino. Today on TELOSscope, we continue our series of discussions of the novel with the following contribution by Alex Dubilet. See also the earlier posts by Vincent Lloyd and Michael Allan.

A miasma of exhaustion and obsolescence pervades Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. It is occasionally punctured by explicit expressions of a pornographic libidinality, but these, in the end, serve only as desperate manifestations of increasingly temporary respites. The end is nigh, if it didn’t already happen. Houellebecq’s universe remains what it has been repeatedly—a universe of male libidinal desire, its intensifying frustrations and anxieties monumentally projected onto the background of the specters of the civilizational decline of the West. Houellebecq is at the tired end of the secular liberal dream of possessive individualism and sexual freedom, or, as the narrator puts it rather succinctly: “In the end, my cock was all I had” (81).

The Islam conjured up by Houellebecq is a highly ambivalent phantasmatic playing-out of this libidinal imaginary. Notwithstanding the novel’s insistence on the purportedly political nature of Islam—after all, this future France is being run by a Muslim political party and the Sorbonne has become a Saudi-sponsored Islamic university—the Islam it generates is a kind of hyper-intensified Orientalist Islam that is nothing if not libidinal. Fears over the quasi-apocalyptic defeat of Western civilization by Islam are largely displaced by scenes of a purloined libidinal economy: Houellebecq’s future France is populated by Muslim men possessing multiple young and submissive wives—an image compulsively reiterated throughout the novel with what seems to be a kind of hypnotic envy.

Indeed, the narrator’s climactic conversion to Islam—and the preceding conversions of various intellectual figures throughout the novel—enacts a singular shift of theoretical perspectives. It suggests an imaginary transition from a clash of civilizations thesis (which one would expect from a conservative author) and the existential enmity between the spectral unities of the West and Islam, to a quite different relation. Islam becomes an agent of salvation, a source of a surprising and unexpected second life of the West. The Self is not endangered by the Other, but is saved through a submission to that Other. One could say that there is something almost perversely Levinasian about the whole thing. The conversion is a production of a future, a new future that didn’t exist and couldn’t be expected, a miraculous resurrection in the flesh. But what is being saved and where does the submission lead?

Houellebecq’s Islam enacts a curious reversal. If for Freud the mythical act of patricide was necessary to form an egalitarian collective by, so to speak, distributing the jouissance that the primal father was hoarding, then Houellebecq is a son who insists that egalitarian jouissance has never been enough. Islam is imagined as a site of redemption from the failure and frustration of that brotherhood and its desiccated libido: Thanks to the titillations of polygamy and rigid gender subjection, Islam becomes the instrument to enact the fantasy of regaining, in a new form, the jouissance of the primal father, a fantasy whose name, for Houellebecq, secular liberalism dares no longer speak. Here Islam is envisioned as fundamentally patriarchal, not only because of the submission of women to men and the reassertion of the primacy of depoliticized private space of family and morality, but also precisely in the fact that the male position can claim its lost identity not only as son, but as father, owner, and possessor of the unlimited pleasure. As Islam transitions in the novel from being a threat to a bearer of redemption, it becomes a kind of theologically-inspired sex trafficking, the production machine of brown female flesh for, among others, decrepit white male libidos.

Islam is rendered an instrument for the salvation and rebirth of a society of male enjoyment, and thus becomes the means for the realization of the dream of an alternative, regressive modernity. In other words, it becomes the future of what modernity once was—a society of men—their desire, symbolic status, and public agency—with women re-associated with the private and the sexual. This is why the novel repeatedly draws connections between a certain conservative European “nativism” and Islam. Houellebecq intuits Joan Scott’s and others’ insight that the supposedly universalistic liberal secularism has been regulating and subjugating women’s bodies from the get-go. Seeing those mechanisms fail, Houellebecq now imagines other tools for firing the machine back up—declaring that the religious-secular divide should hardly be seen as insurmountable divide when it is a question of the resurrection of the flesh and afterlife. Except that now this future modernity is prosthetically intensified by Orientalist spices, and its submission to God becomes the nominal price for the rejuvenation of male life, property, and desire. It is as though Submission acts out the admission that the antagonism between Europe and Islam is fabricated and ontologically unnecessary—just like critics of secularism have been saying—except here the insight is re-appropriated by the Houellebecqian anti-feminist and anti-left discourses. The West can be saved through the Other, not because salvation comes through self-abnegation towards transcendence, but because that Other reveals a repressed truth about the self; the Other is the intensified version of what the Self has disavowed within itself until the moments of its decline.

Throughout, the novel plays out the dialectic of (putatively secular) autonomy and submission (embodied in Islam). For the most part, however, submission is not rethought outside of the norms of autonomy. Sometimes, it is disparaged with disgust; at others, it is names a certain freedom revealed through the abdication of the burdens and frustrations of autonomy. As the narrator remarks, encountering the multiple young wives of an Arab businessmen on a train: “Obviously they had no autonomy, but as they say in English, fuck autonomy.” This exclamation leads to dreams of abdicating of responsibility, agency, and achievement—and taking up a position of minority. Houellebecq sounds like an exhausted Kant who finds himself at a disappointing end of history: autonomy still burdens us with its normativity, but it can no longer be accomplished, and so we should allow ourselves the reluctant dream of residing in minority and tutelage. Forms of heteronomy never rise up to become places from which one can critique the realities of liberal autonomy, as has been suggested by anthropologists of Islam. Or rather, one could say that the string of conversions, including the narrator’s own, seem to change the status of submission and heteronomy in the novel, allowing a model of agency through submission. But this is not imagined, as some anthropologists of Islam like Talal Asad or Saba Mahmood have proposed, as partaking in a program of ethical self-cultivation and alternative understandings of agency. Instead, the nominal submission to God becomes a mechanism for regaining power, power over women’s bodies, and a certain kind of autonomy of the father and husband. Rather than an entry into ethical practice, submission becomes a moment in the dialectics of re-charged feelings of power and autonomy. This is confirmed not the least by the fact that for Houellebecq, in good secular fashion, forms of veiling can do nothing but signify, in an alternating and complementary ways, enduring child-like states of minority and sexual subjugation.

Yet it is worth stressing another aspect in relation to Houellebecq’s universe: Autonomy and heteronomy form a closed dialectical dance radically at the expense of forms of collective life that might challenge the primacy of those concepts. For Houellebecq, the subject is either forced to remain in isolation or partake in modes of hierarchical subjugation: the possibility of communal life has been rendered invisible and impossible. As his narrator says at some point, I don’t understand the point of friendship. On a large scale, the leftist imaginary of communal life is derided throughout the novel with a singularly vehement vitriol and aspersion. (Only in Houellebecq’s libidinal-civilizational universe can a drastic reduction of state welfare and the near total redomestication of social life not be accompanied by a set of violent resistance and maintained through excessive police repression.) In the end, the novel performs a powerful act of foreclosure against all possibility of the common(s) and the communal: These are rendered as nothing but the forgettable failures of secularist-atheist imaginary—and this distortion and blindness is as powerful and consequential as the deformations that the novel enacts on Islam.

1 comment to On the Dialectics of Submission and Autonomy

  • Brad R

    The author’s critique of the novel is excellent, and I agree with it completely, except I do not see another alternative, as the author does, to those which Houellebecq sketches out. Houllebecq’s narrator is happiest when making love to his Jewish young girlfriend: “I felt eternal,” he describes of the rhythmic lovemaking in which they were engaged. In the act, he is on top, and she is on the bottom. Dubilet seems to imagine that power relations can be leveled and the atomic community, the nuclear family, be retained. But if what Allan Bloom has rightly called the moral ambiguity of male sexuality is to be decided once and for all in favor of morality, as it must be by social levelers, then the libidinal forces that cycle through economies are to be annulled.

    A historical materialist sees these forces as expressing themselves through nature, and for Marx, capitalism is nothing but an outgrowth of nature, Smith’s portrayal of everyone as operating in his own self-interest being completely agreed-upon. Social leveling imagines that the other is the locus of distress, a liberal view for which Nietzsche has contempt. “To be radical is to get to the root of things” (Marx), which is to say, economics is rooted in binaries, and Dubilet’s leftist imaginary rather in the dissipation of natural forces in artifice. It is, in short, a betrayal of the revolution.