Michel Houellebecq: The Exploration of Post-Modernity in Contemporary French Literature

“Michel Houellebecq. Rester vivant” Exhibition, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France, June 26, 2016 | © Courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flickr.
“Michel Houellebecq. Rester vivant” Exhibition, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France, June 26, 2016 | © Courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flickr.

The literary oeuvre of Michel Houellebecq, one of the more celebrated French writers, shows affinities with the philosophical discourse on postmodernism and the end of modernity.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.

According to Claire Lozier (2018: 668-669),1 Houellebecq’s novels, such as Platform published in 2001, have a post-modern dimension to them, as they cross the boundaries between different genres, e.g., travel writing and literary conventions, to produce works of literature with a mass market appeal. As some critics have pointed out, Houellebecq’s text break down the distinctions between rarified literary culture and the textual artifacts of everyday life, such as advertising texts, product catalogues and travel guides (Lozier, 2018: 670). In borrowing from popular literary genres, Houellebecq, thus, recycles literary conventions, while turning his literary works into commodities (Lozier, 2018: 670), which corresponds to the definition of post-modernity as a bricolage of high and low art elements.

As Bruhn (2013: 85)2 argues, Houellebecq’s works can be considered as calculated provocations of conventional literary expectations that self-reflexively anticipate and encourage their critique. Moreover, Houellebecq’s texts also demonstrate layers of philosophical and art theoretical meaning, as they also articulate a critical, sarcastic and pessimistic perspective on present-day Western culture, while echoing the classical German philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (Bruhn, 2013: 86).

This has not detracted from the topicality of Houellebecq’s literary output, such as Submission, his novel published in 2015, while attaining a best-seller status and closely resonating with the terrorist attacks in Paris in the same year, e.g., also on the journal Charlie Hebdo (Bacanu, 2015: 19).3 This also explains the nomination of Houellebecq for several international awards for his works of fiction, such as the Prix Goncourt in 2010 (Bacanu, 2015: 28; Meizoz, 2014). In this sense, this author can be argued to be creating post-literary texts that adopt multiple literary techniques, invite translations into other media, such as film, and represent writerly interventions into contemporary culture (Harris, 2017).4

By dint of this multimedia aspect of Houellebecq’s oeuvre, his figure has been interpreted as that of an artist, a poet, a celebrity in his own right who sidesteps rigid conventions of modern literature, as Harris (2017) also concludes. This also connects Houellebecq to the discourse on postmodernism and postmodernity as not only cultural, literary, artistic phenomena, but also correlates of social changes occurring in reaction to global capitalism and terrorist attacks (Soares, 2010).5 Thus, Houellebecq both reflects contemporary received ideas and offers a self-reflexive, postmodern critique of these, in a Charles Baudelaire-like fashion and a post-Baudelairian one alike (Soares, 2010).

Similar to the figure of Baudelaire as a Parisian flâneur, Houellebecq, as Meizoz (2014)6 notes, is a public, mediatized personality that aptly designs both his literary works and public appearances as a celebrated author that adds postmodern performativity to his texts, such as The Map and the Territory. Published in 2010, this prize-winning novel ironically stages the death of the author, Michel Houellebecq, in a transparent reference to the post-modern theoretical discourse, such as the philosophical works of Jean Baudrillard.

By Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: “Michel Houellebecq. Rester vivant” Exhibition, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France, June 26, 2016 | © Courtesy of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Flickr.

This post is based on an article that originally appeared in OpenScience, 11/4/2019, https://openscience.com/michel-houellebecq-the-exploration-of-post-modernity-in-contemporary-french-literature/.

  1. Lozier, Claire. “Empowering Signs: Writing and e-motions in Michel Houellebecq’s Platform.” Open Cultural Studies 2.1 (2018): 668-675. []
  2. Bruhn, Jørgen. “Post-Medium Literature? Two Examples of Contemporary Scandinavian.” Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Philologica 5.1 (2013): 79-94. []
  3. Bacanu, Horea. “Globalisation of Cultural Circuits. The Case of International Awards for Fiction.” European Review of Applied Sociology 8.11 (2015): 19-30. []
  4. Harris, Ashley. “Michel Houellebecq’s Transmedial Œuvre: Extension of the Realm of Creative Intervention.” Itinéraires. Littérature, textes, cultures 2016-2 (2017). Mis en ligne le 11 mai 2017, consulté le 15 mars 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/itineraires/3441 ; DOI : 10.4000/itineraires.3441. []
  5. Soares, Corina da Rocha. “L’équivoque chez Michel Houellebecq: subtilités d’un personnage ambigu.” Carnets. Revue électronique d’études françaises de l’APEF Première Série-2 (2010): 123-149. Mis en ligne le 16 juin 2018, consulté le 15 mars 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/carnets/4709 ; DOI : 10.4000/carnets.4709. []
  6. Meizoz, Jérôme. “Cendrars, Houellebecq: Portrait photographique et présentation de soi.” COnTEXTES. Revue de sociologie de la littérature 14 (2014). Online since 17 June 2014, connection on 15 March 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/contextes/5908 ; DOI : 10.4000/contextes.5908. []

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