Houellebecq – The Map and the Territory (Part 2)

The Shamanic Cryptograph

  • The finished portrait of Houellebecq is described as follows:

    “The expression in the eyes appeared at the time so strange that it could not, in the critics’ view, be compared to any existing pictorial tradition, but had rather to be compared to certain archival ethnological images taken during voodoo ceremonies.” (Houellebecq, p. 120)

    This is the essential definition of being ‘finished with the world of narration’ given the silent language of a secret world imparted. Similarly, when Houellebecq is murdered, his body is carved up and arranged in strips across his floor in a shape that Jed compares to a Pollock, emphasizing Pollock’s interest in shamanism (Houellebecq, p.238). Houellebecq is finally buried beneath a modest gravestone with no dates and embellished with only his name and a Mobius Strip design (Houellebecq, p.214) – a single surface that always leads back to the same place.

  • The man who lives as a sign therefore is an enigmatic sign – a layer architecture where at the higher level is a public face and at the lower level is a private reality, this private reality encrypted by the enigma of the face. The public sign communicates through barely scrutable juxtapositions, impressions and contrasts whereas the private self mostly disappears into the public face. Thus Houellebecq’s computer is heavily encrypted (Houellebecq, p. 206) and when it is finally decrypted by the police, it reveals a private life in which absolutely nothing happens. Aside a few practical phone calls and a weird scattering of former mistresses – remnant traces of the private? – there is no meaningful private sphere at all. A single surface with no discernible origin. The sign-life is the whole interactive life of being and, as any serious user of social media knows, the private life is simply a forgettable resource for the public image’s own creation. Or at least, in a world where the social has been transplanted into the sign, this is how life feels.

Art, Territory and the Alien

“The question of beauty is secondary in painting: the great painters of the past were considered such when they had developed a world view that was both coherent and innovative […]” (Houellebecq, p. 19)

  • The artistic career of Jed Martin has a history. In the beginning, he describes himself as above all else, a television viewer (Houellebecq, p. 52); his first art exhibition is called THE MAP IS MORE INTERESTING THAN THE TERRITORY and is made up of a series of Michelin area maps juxtaposed with satellite photographs of the same areas. The satellite photographs appear random and indifferent whereas the Michelin maps are detailed with points of human significance and some kind of guiding viewpoint (Houellebecq, p.48). The Michelin map exhibition is interpreted as a mystical choice – Jed is described as having depicted God’s collaboration with man in the production of the world (Houellebecq, p.49-50 and p. 130-131).
  • Jed’s series of paintings on the professions also refers back to this mystical theme of God and the artist collaborating in the production of a vision of the world. The Engineer Ferdinand Piech Visiting the Production Workshops at Molsheim shows Piech, the former CEO of Volkswagen, as a Christ-like figure leading the engineers at Bugatti Automobiles into an ultra-affluent, ultra-fast techno-future. At the same time however, the series documents those professions in decline and holds in paint what is about to disappear. The most striking examples show one reality handing over to the next reality, for instance in the uncompleted Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst painting, Koons is seen to give way to Hirst as the market and the essence of human aesthetics replaces pleasure and sex with suffering and death (Houellebecq, p.251-252). In the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs painting, Gates gives way to Jobs in the same way that raw innovation and free-market optimism gives way to cynicism, style, opportunistic piracy and an overall plasticized aesthetic sterility. Jobs and Gates play chess; Gates appears to be winning, yet in one move Jobs can win; beyond the two, outside, some children play Frisbee by a forest as the sun sets on the physical world beyond (Houellebecq, p.124-125). This appetite for sterility and death is later pronounced in the contrast between a brothel, with its gaudy extravagance, and the Swiss euthanasia clinic with its cold interiors and its mechanization of death. The business of the clinic is booming, however that of the brothel has all but disappeared (Houellebecq, p. 251-252). Death replaces sex, sterility replaces sensuality, virtuality replaces reality.
  • This endless potential of polymorphic human reality seems to be the central point from which the shamanic portrait of Houellebecq emanates. Moreover, it projects Jed into his third phase where the territory seems to have become more interesting than the map. At the very least, it is the world view – the map – of the ‘alien’ which starts to interest Jed as he makes use of video montages to, for instance, show ‘how plants see the world’[4] (Houellebecq, p.288), By this time, Jed is suffering from dementia and cancer, barely able to construct a cogent sentence, himself taken over at the organic level, by alien, irrational and unproductive reality. Such irrational, non-productivity is central to the Houellebecqean human and in particular his artists. The tragic case of Jed’s father – bound up perhaps in his euthanized destiny – was that he was condemned to build holiday resorts for tourists whilst, in actuality, throughout his architectural career, he had ‘never stopped wanting to build houses for swallows’ (Houellebecq, p. 277). An imaginative cul-de-sac, a passion without utility.

    “Art, to take another example, was linked to everything: to dark zones, to luminous zones, and intermediary zones. The economy was linked to almost nothing, except to what was most machine-like.” (Houellebecq, p.222).

  • Signs constructed from profound humanity – the province of artists – therefore take precedence over the symbols of utility which saturate the behavioural rituals and motives of Western societies. As such, Jasselin – the detective investigating Houellebecq’s murder – is so utterly disappointed to find that the murder is over money that he retires from the police force (Houellebecq, p.260). As it transpires, Jasselin is wrong and the murderer himself is motivated by his own mortidinous, artistic ambitions, being eventually found with a basement full of rare insects, corpse sculptures and a number of works by Francis Bacon and Gunther von Hagens. Real evil acquires a human vitality – and takes even the side of the Good – out of the sheer fact that the economy is so utterly disconnected from profound reality.

There is a map and that map has obfuscated the territory. The map however, is beginning to groan and ripple and crack – the subterranean displacement of the territory as it shifts is producing new psychic geographical patterns. In Houellebecq, beneath this dull, aching topography, new images begin to emerge, and do so intermingling despair and perverse delight. The tortured tableau of torsos and bodies of Houellebecq’s killer, the desire for an evil that transcends wealth, the architectural dreams – incompatible with prevailing reality – of Jed’s father and finally, the cryptographic image of Houellebecq, both in the shamanistic portrait and his own indivisible interplay between the private and public spheres of his life. Along the fault-lines of dead illusion, the territory stalks the imagination to produce new forms, irrational and intangible truths that disrupt the map and economy with intimations of a new possible world in formation.

Part 1 Part 2


[4] There are various ways of looking at simulation and the way the map precedes reality. One might invent ‘individuality’, ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, ‘bullying’, ‘feminism’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘racism’, ‘power’, ‘violence’, ‘victims’ – and the vital, organic self may respond in turbulent, authentic ways to the pressures of such inventions. In contrast, the economy – which is more machine-like – may represent, for instance, geographical locations and develop the perceptual apparatus of ‘tourism’. In both cases, we have examples of how the model precedes and organises the organic territory of ‘personal reality’. In Houellebecq, we are seeing the effects of these signs becoming less and less meaningful to the people living among them. It may be, as Baudrillard or Lacan thought, that humans are never able to describe ‘the real’. However, a prevailing model of the real can certainly start to feel old, stupid and useless. Under such circumstances, the organic force of ‘the real’ demands a redesign of the map and to this extent at least, the real begins to precede the map.

  1. I remember when I visited the Netherlands, I went on a bus tour to a location outside Amsterdam where there were windmills. It was beautiful, like a 3D postal card. In a sense, the images I took over there were photographs of a postal card.

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