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An Officer of Civilization

The Poetics of Michel Houellebecq

Nurit Buchweitz

Michel Houellebecq posits himself as an officer of civilization, offering a map of contemporary reality and according literature a substantial role in the field of public involvement. His unique style problematizes contemporary cultural processes and deconstructs the aesthetic and ideological thought-habits that design the collective imaginary of our era. As such, this book seeks to analyze the particularities of Houellebecq’s poetics in the context of literary tradition, intertextual relations, psycho-cultural aspects and social semiotics, alongside contacts with the contemporary field of art. The author focuses on Houellebecq’s poetical differentia specifica, the unique and innovative intersection between the cooperation with transnational capitalism and the resentment toward ignorant indulgence in it. This book reads Houellebecq as both iconoclastic and subversive and at the same time as a commodity in the literary marketplace and shows how his narratives are harnessed for the purposes of activism in the service of engaged impact.
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Passive-Activism: A Modular Narration


“When you think of it, I said to Vincent, I had done intervention art without knowing it.” (Possibility, p. 105; emphasis in the original) [«En somme, dis-je à Vincent, j’avais fait de l’art d’intervention, sans le savoir.» (Possibilité, p. 149)]. This sentence is pronounced by the comedian protagonist of The Possibility of an Island, Daniel1, the alter-ego of the author.1 In whatever way we are to understand this – as a confession by the author, an indicative sign projected onto the protagonist and characterizing him or as a meta-poetic remark regarding the text – this sentence provides a clue to deciphering the core of Michel Houellebecq’s poetics.

Houellebecq has been hailed by some as a prescient genius with a deep grasp of our times and dismissed by others as a rabid extremist. His novels are appreciated as mordantly clever and resented for their portrayal of uncertain ideas. Yet Houellebecq has unequivocally turned reading into an entirely new and qualitatively different experience, making the appreciation of what we have read perplexing. In all of Houellebecq’s books, the narrative is ridden with a celebration of misogyny, racial comments, and explicit sexual descriptions, along with a morbid view of Western culture and humanity in general. His writings reiterate the diagnosis of a society in the process of becoming devoid of meaning. They depict the futile pursuit of pleasure never obtained or truncated in one fell swoop – while expressing deep disdain towards kinship and family ties and seeking relief from interpersonal responsibility. Houellebecq’s...

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