Houellebecq – The Map and the Territory (Part 1)

Beyond the Precession of Simulacra

  • Beyond the precession of simulacra, Houellebecq’s 2010 novel The Map and the Territory appears like a groaning hieroglyph, its anguish revealing the entirely alien reality on which our lives are based. The map is our model, the territory is the real and the narrator – the Jed-Houellebecq complex – is the suffering organism through which reality expresses itself in its unmitigated disconnection and phobic rejection of everything man has made. The organic reality of the man is disassociating itself from the synthetic conceptualisation of the world whilst synthesizing some alternatives in which he himself might live.
  • In Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard presents 4 stages for the progression of the image as it passes from the pre-modern era to the post-modern present. (By ‘image’, we can include any description, representation or model of reality).

      The Four Stages of the Image

    1. it is the reflection of a profound reality;
    2. it masks and denatures a profound reality;
    3. it masks the absence of a profound reality;
    4. It has no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.
    5. (Baudrillard, p. 6)

    It is Baudrillard’s view that we have entered the fourth stage and that simulacra creates more simulacra. This then is the make-up of Western perception:

    “Today abstraction is no longer that of the map […]. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory […], and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.” (Baudrillard, p. 1)

  • It is in this context that Houellebecq (who is between the real and the unreal) should be read. The Map and the Territory makes epic use, all at once, of the suffering vestiges of the remnant real, the substantial vitality of a man becoming a map and offers a silent portrait of an energy that doesn’t quite speak, but in its silence reveals the aesthetic reality of a man amidst simulation, that is, a territory suffering amidst the precedence of its map.

The Suffering Simulant

  • Both Jed – the artist – and Houellebecq – the one in the novel – are conjoined in the fact they could perhaps become friends. They are also conjoined in the fact that they are people of a certain type, and friendship is a term not wholly appropriate to ‘people like them’ (Houellebecq, p. 233). Moreover, they both lack a certain ‘familiarity with life’ (Houellebecq, p. 280), that is, they are disconnected from life and one might read this as the consequence of simulation – either through too much reality, they are unable to familiarize themselves with what is simulated, or through the emotional substantiation of artificial desires they cannot connect themselves to what is real.[1] Throughout the book, seemingly familiar concepts are consistently italicized, or placed in quotation marks: a reference to ‘loved ones’ (Houellebecq, p. 280), the love-preserving strategy of collecting ‘a store of beautiful memories’, a reference to ‘a crisis in their relationship’ (Houellebecq, p. 58). The effect of the italics is to disclaim these concepts – to put them in the mouths of others: ‘loved ones’, ‘beautiful memories’, ‘friendship’, the narrator’s voice speaks over the top of them, disconnected from them and apparently quite bored of the pretence that these signs refer back to any underlying reality, such concepts instead standing in for massively complex and ambiguous structures.[2] The book begins at Christmas, Jed’s Christmas a pallid approximation of the ‘idea of Christmas’; it begins with Jed trying to get his boiler fixed by plumbers who, in spite of their professional and boastful advertising, never show up. The representation of reality, through signs at least, is, in the end, an exhausting error.
  • By the end of the book, one of Jed’s final pieces of work is a layered video montage of a collection of PC motherboards arranged as if a futuristic city. Using acid, he rots these motherboards and films them as they decay. The montage shows this slow rot and the gradual disappearance of these disintegrating citadels beneath layers of vegetation (Houellebecq, p.288). The territory has swallowed the city in the same way the organic emotional life of the man rises up to swallow representational, literate society.

Literary Immersion

  • If representation has failed as an aesthetic system – or more accurately, if the suffering simulant finds his reactive reality to be one of repulsion and phobia when confronted with the strategies of representation – Houellebecq’s book offers various other modes of aesthetic operation and indeed his ‘career’ constitutes such an alternative. In the book, the author of Atomised says:

    “I think I’ve more or less finished with the world as narration – the world of novels and films, the world of music as well. I’m now only interested in the world as juxtaposition – that of poetry and painting.”(Houellebecq, p.169)

  • One of the central figures of The Map and the Territory is the portrait Jed paints of Houellebecq and in a sense, you could say that the book too is a portrait of Houellebecq. The portrait and the book are conjoined in the same way Jed and Houellebecq are conjoined. By Houellebecq here, we do not mean the character in the book; nor do we mean any real writer; what we mean is the public image that Houellebecq has been writing throughout his books and interviews. The public image Houellebecq has been as important to the writer as any of his individual works and the works are consciously channelled into creating this character. When talking about Houellebecq’s art, It is misguided to look only at the novels, but we should look too at how these work to encode a public figure which is an aesthetic artefact in its own right and which is perhaps more important than the novels. Houellebecq says to Jed,

    ‘You know, I realise what you’re doing and I know the consequences. You’re a good artist – without going into details, one could say that. The result is that, while I’ve been photographed thousands of times, if there’s an image of me, just one, that will last through the centuries to come, it will be your painting.’ (Houellebecq, p.114).

    In this statement, you can’t help but think he’s speaking too about the writer Houellebecq and of this current book. The portrait and The Map and the Territory, Houellebecq and Jed are inextricably interrelated.

  • “In truth, I’ve never done performance art, but I feel like I might have something in common with that. From one painting to another I try to create an artificial, symbolic space where I can depict situations that have meaning for the group”. (Houellebecq, p.96)

    In Houellebecq’s literature then, and particularly in this novel, there is a strong element of aesthetic immersion – that is, you cannot separate the performative life of the writer Houellebecq from his book. Nor can you separate his actual, existential life. The act of writing here is about having a life in the world of signs, a being in an ‘artificial, symbolic space’, which is, for the suffering simulant, perhaps the only space worth having any being in. In this regard, it is interesting that Jed dreams that he is trapped in Houellebecq’s novel, surrounded by text and references to the people and facts of his life (Houellebecq, p.98). Jed, as if real, dreams about being imprisoned in a book and Houellebecq, who is real, writes himself into the world of signs. Fiction dreams about its own reality and reality dreams its way into the world of signs.

  • All this aesthetic immersion, for both the reader and writer, must have a palpable effect, at least when contemplated. It contains a sort of conceptual tactility. For instance, Jed describes the importance of different paint brands to his works (Houellebecq, p.75). In this, he mirrors too the way Houellebecq paints his books with brand names and real people, including in this instance his own identity. The combination fuses the texture of paint with the texture of words with the texture of objects with the texture of lives. Extending this further, the writer has produced his own wider identity in music, novels, interviews, poetry, films and essays – a multi-media, multi-sensual artefact. If immersion is to live amongst signs as if they were an existential reality, this is what Houellebecq seems to have achieved. The virtual experience supersedes all else in the actualisation of the experience of being.[3]

Part 1 Part 2


[1] There are many ways in which one’s attachment to life can be eroded by the precession of simulation: the installation of artificial expectations at the level of one’s sense of the real where these expectations are, in fact, completely unrealisable; an intermediary veil of information and conceptualization that sits between one’s reaction to, involvement with or experience of life; an emotional or intellectual acuity which makes the assimilation of the prevailing model of reality completely impossible; that the prevailing reality is produced by inhuman, alien or de-natured motivators such as ‘the economy’ or concessions to such things as ‘objective’, ‘scientific’ or ‘pragmatic’ perspectives. All contribute to the dislocated antipathy of the suffering simulant.

[2] It is important too to acknowledge that these concepts – loved ones, beautiful memories etc. – have been deliberately over-simplified and commodified. It is no real surprise that the exchange of such concepts leaves them more and more unrecognizable and increasingly toxic.

[3] Miller, Nin – the orgasm generation – felt the dream could become the life. Post-orgasm, detached from life, the desire is to live with the signs; indeed, experiential being finds its locus among signs.

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