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. Beginning with Vincent Lloyd’s post today, TELOSscope presents a series of discussions of the novel that will appear over the next several days.
The violence of November 13, 2015, in Paris was met with an avalanche of grief and sympathy from around the world. Similar feelings followed the attack on Charlie Hebdo several months earlier. Paris is an iconic and beloved city; to see blood and bullet holes on the streets of Paris caused pain. Or rather, it causes professions of emotion. In an age of personal mediation, when we are expected to advertise our feelings about world events nearly in real time through tweets and Facebook posts, it is an open question how much feelings are felt—though they are most certainly performed. Affect circulates with ever increasing velocity, but such affect is increasingly shallow, more like a shared way of talking than anything having to do with inwardness. This does not mean mediated emotions are insignificant. As leftist critics of such public mourning charge, shared ways of talking about the world lead to shared ways of seeing the world and can ultimately legitimate violent ways of acting in the world.
It is tempting to read the provocations of iconoclastic French writer Michel Houellebecq as catalyzing the circulation of affect. Specifically, Houellebecq’s seemingly bigoted portrayals of Islam would stoke Islamophobia as well as Muslim anti-Western sentiment when the writer’s words move from whatever literary nuance encases them in his texts to broader public discourse. Indeed, Houellebecq has faced legal action in France for precisely this reason, and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo occurred the day Houellebecq’s newest novel, Submission, was to be featured on the satirical newspaper’s cover. In an age when mass mediation has made public life increasingly about evoking feelings, Houellebecq’s work consistently evokes the wrong kind—which is to say the illiberal kind.
This account of Houellebecq’s dangerous affect is particularly puzzling if one actually reads Houellebecq’s work, and particularly Submission. It is a novel in which affect is strikingly absent. Indeed, this is the premise of the novel: white Europeans are increasingly isolated, increasingly disconnected from each other and from their own humanity, and decreasingly able to feel. The novel’s narrator and protagonist exemplifies this utter alienation. A professor of French literature, he has lost touch with his parents (his mother is eventually buried in a potter’s field), he barely speaks with his colleagues, he lives in a Chinese neighborhood where he does not know his neighbors, and his erotic encounters are without pleasure, with prostitutes he meets online. Incapable of passion, the narrator—like all of Houellebecq’s narrators—is at once rational and cynical. He appreciates just how hollow bourgeois conventional wisdom is, yet he largely follows it anyway. He is, after all, reasonable, which is to say he does what one ought to do, even when he realizes that this means living a cliché.
Far from incendiary, Houellebecq’s goal, it would seem, is to offer a model of the secular critic, and to perform secular criticism. Religions and ideologies are dismissed as absurd. Islam receives special ridicule, but this is probably because Houellebecq sees European Christianity as so thoroughly dead, so thoroughly impotent. Houellebecq recognizes the secularized status quo as secularist, an ideology that privileges comfort, “niceness,” and well-managed difference, and even as his narrator participates in this bourgeois world the narration mocks it. Houellebecq’s narrator, like Edward Said’s secular critic, stands apart from any particular culture or tradition. Where Said extols physical exile as the privileged position of the critic, Houellebecq favors affective exile, living amid a culture and acting like others but not having the feelings of others. Said’s secular critic is a humanist. Forcibly distanced from a culture, she desires it and appreciates it all the more strongly even as she challenges the ways nationalism, racism, religion, or other ideologies distort that culture. Houellebecq’s model of secular criticism is anti-humanist. The critic does not desire; or, rather, desires only ecstasy that would take him outside the world. Ideologies are exposed because passionate attachments are refused, leaving ideologies unvarnished and absurd; for Said, it is passion from an impossible distance that fuels critical inquiry.
Submission is not Houellebecq’s best book. It features few stylistic innovations over his earlier texts and it recycles their themes, but it does present a novel and intriguing scenario. What would happen if, in the not-so-distant future, Muslim political parties in Europe gain enough power to govern? Houellebecq answers that Islam could very well becoming palatable, and even desirable, to white European elites. In Submission, the French center-left and center-right accede to the rule of a moderate Islamist party, and a few secularist intellectuals, ultimately including Houellebecq’s narrator, convert to Islam. What is Islam’s appeal? In a world of secularist alienation, Islamic religious life offers order and beauty. In a world that fetishizes freedom in all the worst ways, Islam shows the allure of submission. Most significantly, Islam makes it possible to feel again by integrating fellow believers into a community with a shared tradition and shared values. The specific form that moderate Islam takes, in Houellebecq’s imagination, looks very much like the “Red Tory” and “Blue Labour” proposals growing out of recently revived social democratic Christian traditions in England. The central state weakens, local and regional authorities strengthen, the family unit is increasingly valued, and non-profit and religious organizations are encouraged to expand, variegating social space between the individual and the state.
While Houellebecq’s narrator does, in the end, convert to Islam, he does so for material reasons: he must convert in order to retain his university teaching post. The reader is not left with the sense that secular criticism is abandoned. Indeed, it is a Nietzschean French intellectual who ultimately persuades the narrator to convert with quite practical, quite reasonable considerations. The book’s conclusion, with conversion, dramatizes the perils faced by the secular critic. The critic’s desires go unsatisfied by the world, but the critical enterprise itself, or the novel, offers satisfaction that surpasses even the transcendent. When alienation arises out of privilege, from the comforts of the European bourgeoisie, such intellectual critique may satisfy. But when alienation is caused by systemic injustice—racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and so on—alienation necessary involves affective tumult rather than numbness. This is Said’s secular critic at her best: not simply desiring acceptance but enraged, frightened, despairing, stunned, saddened, and hopeful all at once, fueling not only intellectual production but social engagement. Affective tumult and worldly concern can lead to a quick embrace of proximate satisfactions—new identity categories, empty rallying cries, and politics reduced to re-tweets—which mask rather than uproot injustice. At the end of the day, Houellebecq and Said should be read together. Being human means not being at home in the world, and realizing our humanity means struggling with the challenge of tapping the creative power of disquietude, wary of easy answers.