Monday, December 28, 2015

Houellebecq's Soumission

Ghassan Hage

I read Houellebecq's Soumission over the Christmas break.  A novel pertaining to imagine a peaceful and democratic Islamic take over of France which ends up generating a creepy sexist dictatorial social and moral order, and a whole new class of French 'collaborators' that happily join in lured by all kind of equally creepy sexual and financial benefits.

It is interesting that just before the holidays I had also finished writing a piece for American Ethnologist (I think it will be available on AE's site as open access 'early viewing' on the first week of the new year) in which I look at the sense of 'Etat de Siege' that exists in the west today as a result of the refugee crisis.  I analyse the refugee crisis as a colonial crisis, particularly as a crisis in the colonial borders that were traced in the beginning of the twentieth century and that, like the fences of an old and mismanaged farm, have rusted away and are no longer capable of keeping those contained within them under control. I argue that this sense of a 'state of siege' is also accentuated by the ecological crisis. Both the ecological and the colonial crises are experienced as governmental crises. That is, both involve processes of exploitation that have generated 'ungovernable' by-products whose effect has ended up producing a sense of loss of control over what initially was a relatively under control natural/colonial space. Over-exploitation generates a beyond control over-flow of waste and refugees that end up besieging the exploiter and changing the very nature of the physical and social atmosphere under which exploitation is occurring.

In the process I examine those who see in the state of siege a 'reverse colonisation'. It is as part of this process that I look at a very old colonial genre which is precisely the 'reverse colonialism' genre. As I note:

A feeling of being besieged by the very people whom one is actually colonizing is, paradoxically, part and parcel of the history of colonialism. Images of Asians, indigenous people, Arabs, and black people dominating, exploiting, and enslaving White Europeans abound in colonial cultural production. This is so even at the height of the “classical” European colonial venture when colonialists were, relatively speaking, most secure about their entitlements and their transnational supremacy. Stephen Arata (1996) has called these stories of besiegement “narratives of reverse colonization.” As he put it, discussing English literature,

Moments like this recur with remarkable frequency in late-Victorian popular fiction, embedded in what can be called narratives of reverse colonization. In such narratives what has been represented as the “civilized” world is on the point of being overrun by “primitive” forces. 

It is hard not to place Houellebecq's novel in this tradition. I would have of course liked to add: since we are of course talking about Houellebecq, he is too sophisticated a writer and a thinker to just place him there. But the fact is that many writers who have written in this tradition had added their own specificity that shows them to be not just belonging to it.

As Arata points out many a good novel belong to the genre, from Stoker's Count Dracula to H. G. Well's The War of the Worlds (1898). Nonetheless, and as he rightly points out: "Stoker's Count Dracula and Haggard's Ayesha frighten not least because their characteristic actions - appropriation and exploitation - uncannily reproduce those of the colonising Englishman"(108). 

Of course there is non-literary 'reverse colonialism' genre that I have actually examined in White Nation as part of the analysis of white decline. I had not read Arata then and I referred to it as an 'imaginary power reversal' emanating from a real loss of reality which 'explains some of the more hallucinatory fan­tasies one finds in the discourse of decline. '

In Ron Casey's auto­biography, for example, the 'analysis' of the effect of Asian migration reaches truly phantasmagoric proportions. As he put it:

In 2020, the entire east coast of Australia, from Cairns in the north to Melbourne in the south, could be overrun by those of Chinese and Japanese extraction. The north, from Broome across the Northern Territory to the Gulf of Carpentaria, could be populated almost entirely by Indonesians and Malays, and the west coast from Broome in the north to Perth in the South could be home to millions of Indians. Those of European extraction, the ordinary white Australians, could live in small enclaves in South Australia or be driven back to Europe or to parts of the United States. There could be sporadic fighting from gueril­la groups of `dinkums', but this insurrection won't have a snowflake's chance in hell of reversing the Asianisation of Australia. Ghettos of Australian labourers — or 'white coolies' — could live in outer metropolitan areas to service the Asian factories.'

An updated version of this hallucinatory imaginary, his­torical antecedents of which can be found as far back as the 1840s Anglo-Asian encounters, that we find in Pauline Hanson, The Truth. Here we meet the president of what is imagined to have become the 'Republic of Australasia' in the year 2050: Poona Li Hung, 'a lesbian ... of multiracial descent, of Indian and Chinese background' who is also `part machine — the first cyborg president. Her neuro-cir­cuits were produced by a joint Korean-Indian-Chinese research team.'

Soumission has of course a lot more to offer, but in so far as it is a novel of reverse colonisation, not that much more. The Islam that ends up taking power is really a creepy product of a genuinely colonial imagination not aware at all of the coloniality that it is reversing. As to the racialised sexism that characterise most forms of Islamophobia and end up producing subservient Islamic women en masse, all willing to stop working  as soon as Islamic rule shows its face, all willing to become mothers, feeders and whores without a whimper... hard to know where to begin and where to end with that one.

Some might like to argue that what is different from other reverse colonialism novels is that Houellebecq locates that weakness that allows the take over within French society and shows many tendencies in French culture to be actually far more accomodating of his imagined ruling Islam then French people would like to believe. So, the boundaries between, this French cultural tradition and the imagined Islamic forces that end up becoming the ruling force in France is nowhere near as absolute as some would like it to be.

But as Arata points out this is actually very common in British novels of reverse colonialism:

These forces can originate outside the civilised world (as in She) or they can inhere in the civilised itself (as in Kurtz's emblematic heart of darkness). In each case a fearful reversal occurs: the colonizer finds himself in the position of the colonized, the exploiter is exploited, the victimizer victimized. The reversals are in turn linked to perceived problems—racial, moral, spiritual—within Great Britain itself. (1996, 108)

Where Houellebecq distinguish himself is not really in what he has to offer ideologically. But since he has been editorialising in all kind of places and sees himself as capable of giving advice to all kind of political leaders about the political and cultural rot in which we find ourselves in, it would be a mistake to think that the novel is not primarily intended to be read as an ideological novel.

Nonetheless, there are technical moments of beautiful and even transporting French writing in the book. Description of French regions that are very evocative and descriptions of states of being that are classically Houellebecqian and that cannot but resonate with most male readers. Has Houellebecq anything to offer a female reader? I don't think he has anything at all. but I'd be interested to know if I am wrong about this.

Houellebecq captures two social phenomena that I felt play a critical function: the corporatisation of the university taken in the novel to its delicious logical end with the Saudi financed Islamic university of the Sorbonne. Closely linked to this, he also captures some of the crassness of Gulf but particularly of Saudi-financed events in the West. But this becomes racist, as all critiques of Saudi Arabia do, when not properly contextualised. And Saudi Arabia's power, which undoubtedly is real, can also become imagined as far more important than it actually is and 'the source of all evil' without a full understanding of the political economy of the kingdom and of capitalism  and colonialism. Indeed it becomes a bit like the fascist fetishisation with 'Jewish bankers' as the source of all evil. How can these be transmitted subtly in a novel without ending up giving lectures is a matter for novelists. What is clear is that Houellebecq does not seem to have that subtle understanding in the first place in order to transmit it.

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