A Closer Look at JML 47.2: Michel Houellebecq, a theorist of fluid identity?

By Klem James, author of “Particules Flottantes: Mutable Identity and Postmodern ‘Schizophrenia’ in the Works of Michel Houellebecq,” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 47, no. 2, Winter 2024, pp. 17-36, now available on Project Muse, FREE for a limited time.

Michel Houellebecq, arguably France’s best-known and most widely translated living author is perhaps an unlikely figure to be associated with contemporary debates about identity. Houellebecq is conservative, abused as being so, and sometimes wrongly considered to be reactionary. In his novel Submission (Soumission), he depicts France’s fate in the absence of a robust identity: having lost its moorings and sunk into a cultural and religious void, the country embraces Islam to fill the vacuum. By way of resistance, members of the French identitarian movement are depicted as the last gasp of a nation that is clambering for fixed, monocultural reference points.

While Houellebecq bewails the ebbing away of distinctive cultures in favor of global norms, there is, however, no reason to believe that he is himself identitarian. The dissolution of human identity is a phenomenon that fascinates him and that he keenly documents in both his novels and theoretical output. While he does not relate the phenomenon to contemporary theories of gender, sexuality or ethnicity, he does make a credible and illuminating contribution to discourse about fluid identity by outlining the vicissitudes of human experience under economic liberalism.

In interview with Marin de Viry and Valérie Toranian, he remarks that in the world of business, “You have to be fluid, you mustn’t have a well-defined identity, you need to adapt, be polymorphous, change jobs when you’re asked to do so” (Interventions 208). This reflects his view of our social fabric as a “market society,” a stance that he expounds in his essay “Approaches to Distress” (Approches du désarroi). In this market society, employees must always be “Mobile, open to transformation, always available” (19). Like participants in a New Age workshop, modern subjects are taught by the market society to be “mutable individuals, free from any intellectual or emotional rigidity”. As consumers, their desires are forever deflected from one trend or consumer product onto the next; sometimes, even humans themselves are valuated or fetishized in this way. In the market society, each person is assigned an abstract “exchange value” (18), which, like the value of a currency, fluctuates according to “consumerist fluidity” (17) and the relative, inconstant criteria of “attractiveness, novelty and value for money” (16). This exchange value determines the individual’s appeal and worth both to employers and potential partners.

This, then, is Houellebecq’s characterization of the mutable individual under capitalism. While many modern conceptions of fluid identity seek to be positive or liberatory, Houellebecq seems rather to bring out the tragic or negative aspects of this dissolution of identity. Moreover, underpinning this condition, is the loss of the major faculty of human will: “Nothing in them [the desires of contemporary (wo)man] evokes the organic, total force, turned obstinately towards its accomplishment, which the word ‘will’ suggests. Hence a certain lack of personality, noticeable in everyone” (25). With regard to his novels, he admits “that’s why my characters in general don’t react much” (203). Here, Houellebecq implicitly critiques his favored philosopher, Schopenhauer, the philosopher of pessimism, and his belief that the world is a product of will and representation. Buffeted by the whims of the market society and aware of the diminution of his/her will and desire, the fluid subject languishes in a world bereft of permanence and profundity, as Houellebecq poignantly observes: “… this dissolution of being is a tragic dissolution; and we all continue, moved by a painful nostalgia, to ask the other for what we ourselves can no longer be; to seek, like a blinded phantom, this weight of being that we no longer find within ourselves. This resistance, this permanence; this depth” (28).

In my Journal of Modern Literature article “Particules Flottantes: Mutable Identity and Postmodern ‘Schizophrenia’ in the Works of Michel Houellebecq,” I not only discuss in greater depth the author’s view of the self’s dissolution but relate this to two theories of postmodern schizophrenia, those of Baudrillard and Jameson. Schizophrenia, it should be stressed, is not to be considered here in a clinical sense but rather as a process of societal forces conspiring to erode the subject’s subjectivity and render the inner self polymorphous, unstable or fragmented. Baudrillard and Jameson have elaborated their own compelling interpretations of this form of schizophrenia, and I correlate both to Houellebecq’s thoughts about the dissolution of the self in his theoretical output and – as the embodiments of these ideas – the characters of his novels.

Works Cited
Houellebecq, Michel. Interventions 2020. 3rd ed. Translated by Andrew Brown. Polity P, 2022. Kindle.

Klem James ([email protected]) is a senior lecturer in French at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He is originally from the UK, where he completed a doctoral thesis on non-repressive sublimation and desire in surrealist art and literature. His book Against Repression: Surrealism, Sublimation and the Recuperation of Desire (2018) draws on aspects of this research. He pursued his academic career in Australia first as lecturer and convenor of French at the University of New England (2011-2015) and then at the University of Wollongong (2015-present). His research focuses on the intersections of psychoanalysis, postmodernism, and narratology with surrealism and contemporary French literature.

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