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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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Art, Literature, and the Market: The Viewer/Reader as Voyeur


At the beginning of The Map and the Territory, artist Jed Martin, the protagonist, gazes at his painting of Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst, entitled Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing up the Art Market [«Damien Hirst et Jeff Koons se partageant le marche de l’art»]. The two men in the painting are dressed in business suits and sitting in a fashionably appointed, anonymous room; in the background tall buildings stretch across the horizon.

In this scene, Houellebecq brings together two artists who share an incisive awareness of the art market, an understanding of exactly how it works and who possess the skill to be winning players in it – this they also share with Houellebecq, who “has turned out to have a merchandise value” («Michel Houellebecq est devenu une valeur merchandise»).1 Koons and Hirst have one more thing in common with Houellebecq: they present in their works openly, for all to see, things that are unacceptable in the public sphere, that should remain ab scena (behind the scenes), because they are obscene. Likewise, Houellebecq’s writings hide nothing. On the contrary, they include pornographic sexual descriptions, unabashed depictions of nihilism, misogyny, misanthropy, racism, pedophilia, ‘snuff films’, and more. As was discussed earlier, Houellebecq’s work as a whole represents itself as a commodity that is not independent of market conditions, and ← 97 | 98 → which realizes the commercial potential it embodies by the very fact of its being a commodity. In addition to being a roman à thèse...

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