Terror on the beach.
It is this cultural imperative to find suitable paradigms for coming to terms with terror that has at least in part framed the reception of Michel Houellebecq's latest novel Platform. After the Bali bombings many commentators noticed that Platform--which was written two years earlier and ends with one of the main characters being slaughtered on a Thai beach by Muslim terrorists --could now be read as a kind of cultural pre-emptive strike. Of course it was Thailand and not Bali, but it was a (fictional) group of Muslim fanatical terrorists attacking tourists in the tropics, and for many people that was enough. It probably did not hurt that Houellebecq took a few cheap shots at Islam, both in the novel and in interviews, remarks which landed him in court and subsequently provoked a controversy about freedom of speech, which had its own precursor in the 'Rushdie affair'.
Of course Houellebecq's novels do more than simply create facile controversy. Their popularity stems partly from the fact that in their own way they speak to a generation that suffers, in Baudrillard's words, from 'the despair of having everything'. (1) If Houellebecq's earlier novel Atomised rejected sixties' liberation and modern consumer society, and eerily endorsed a post-human future as a means of solving the dilemmas of humanity, Platform reveals a more banal nihilism, unfolding through the depiction of sex tourism in the Third World, with the element of terrorism thrown in at the end to provide a narratively inelegant if creepily prescient deus ex machina.
The jury is still out on the merit of Houellebecq's work. While he has been awarded two prestigious international literary prizes (2) and received a fair degree of critical acclaim, the value--aesthetic, social, political--of his work remains unclear. On the one hand his novels can the read as a manipulative hashing together of attention-grabbing material--a mixture of cultural despair, backlash ideologies, lurid sex scenes, B-Grade social theory, terrorism and futurism cleverly put together. On the other hand there is nothing else quite like them. If nothing else, Houellebecq's pessimism seems right for our current era, in which capitalism really is colonizing every aspect of our being, whether sexual or molecular (or a combination of the two as in Atomised).
Writing in the tradition of cultural pessimists, and depending on where you see his politics, you might line him up with either Camus or Celine. When he writes of the exhaustion of Western culture, implying that this exhaustion arises through the excess of liberation, his work resonates with many cultural conservatives--from the Frankfurt School to Daniel Bell to John Carroll. It is a measure of the changing times--the final transformation from modernity towards something else, the post-human consolidation of 'Empire' perhaps--that Houellebecq's cultural despair resonates with both sides of politics, indeed reveals the obsolescence of such divisions. Yet, in the light of recent events, it is as if much of this unease and ambivalence towards Houllebecq, indeed towards the world he describes, has been forgotten. After September 11 and Bali, the depiction of terrorism in his novel and his attacks on Islam have been taken up and allowed to marginalize the more comprehensive, critical and provocative aspects of his work: the critique of Western values--his blunt depiction of the instrumentalization of freedom and the commodification of pleasure--and his uneasy ambivalence towards the global sex and tourist industry.
The plot of Platform can be summarized briefly. Michel, a French cultural worker inherits money when his father is murdered. He travels to Thailand on a package tour and sees the sights while making continual use of Thai prostitutes. Returning home, he forms a relationship with Valerie, a young French woman whom he briefly met on the tour. They embark upon a series of increasingly passionate and polymorphous sexual encounters, and eventually their preoccupations spill over into the business world. Valerie works for a chain of international hotels and resorts. For some time business has been flagging, that is until Michel and Valerie hit upon the idea of re-invigorating the resort industry by introducing sex tourism. The sex tourism venture goes from strength to strength and Michel and Valerie decide to settle in Thailand. Michel, whose existence has always been in a state of malaise, seems to gain some kind of happiness with Valerie. Such contentment however is brutally cut short when Valerie is amongst the guests who are murdered by a boatload of Muslim terrorists. Left destitute, Michel responds by cultivating a hatred for all Muslims. Thus 'I devoted myself to trying to feel hatred for Muslims. I was quite good at it ... [e]very time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist or a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman had been gunned down in the Gaza strip I felt a quiver of enthusiasm at the thought that it meant one less Muslim'.
Comments such as these, and remarks in an interview for the magazine Life--in which Houellebecq claimed that Islam is the 'stupidest religion'--have been at the centre of the controversy surrounding the novel. Houellbecq was put on trial in France, the charges levelled at him by four French Muslim organizations, and soon found his cause defended by writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie, amongst others. (3) Given the parallels with both the earlier Rushdie case and the attack in Bali, it is not surprising that most of the debate around Platform has centred on the representation of Muslims and the prediction of terror. It helps that the terrorists in Platform arrive from nowhere. They attack and disappear as quickly as they arrive. The havoc they wreak completely lacks a context. One is left to make an abstract link between pleasure, guilt and punishment if looking for explanation. In this sense Houellebecq's novel allows an easy fit with real events, because in the eyes of many those events do not have causes either, they are simply manifestations of evil.
It is surprising, however, that the novel's apparent endorsement of a globalized sex industry as the extension of Western tourism's natural impulses has generated little comment. Indeed those who have jumped to the defence of Houllebecq have largely ignored this central theme of the novel. In their defence of Western freedoms--the freedom of speech being 'one of the foundation principles of an open society', as Rushdie puts it--they fail to mention the more baleful impacts of freedom, such as the financial and sexual exploitation of the Third World. Given this is the central theme of Platform it is more than an insignificant oversight.
Unlike some of his defenders, much of Houellebecq's work is deeply ambivalent about contemporary freedom. The narrator of Platform, for all his apparent (or satirical) endorsement of the pleasures of the global sex trade, ultimately comes to see Western tourists as 'reek[ing] of selfishness, masochism and death'. Neither these internal, nor external contradictions surrounding Western expansion have attracted much attention. For Rushdie, Hitchens and the like, the power to offend underwrites liberal freedom. While there is much in Houellebecq that might 'offend' the West, it seems that these elements are more often than not glossed over in favour of the Muslim issue. That the 'open-society' is able to impose a particular kind of 'openness' on other cultures and societies, one reflective of Western anxiety and detrimental to the host culture, goes unnoticed.
Tourism, whether sex tourism or the usual kind, is born of an essential contradiction. As John Powers points out in relation to Bali:
[T]he desire to escape from real-world problems is what drives travellers to faraway lands in the first place, and it's one symptom of our impoverished idea of utopia that paradise keeps getting farther and farther away from anything resembling a real society. Over the last few years, Bali has seen a boom in $600-a-night resorts located miles from the beaches frequented by budget tourists ... protected from intruders by armed guards and wholly self-contained. Everything is there for you already: natural splendour, fine dining, aromatic spas, private swimming pools, exquisite traditional architecture and the sense of timeless tranquillity that is a favoured illusion of millennial tourism. (4)
The desires and cultural life of the Western subject are increasingly predicated upon such surrogate utopias. Whether they be of the top end variety or the budget version, travellers increasingly finds only a stylized version of their own world. Yet if tourists find themselves reflected everywhere, they are less sure of who it is that is being reflected. The expanded networks that permit mobility--media, information, travel--also erode the grounds on which identities are established and maintained. More and more we see a regressive and defensive assertion of identity on the part of the West and the non-West, as both become subjected to mobilizing and destabilizing influences--terrorism and tourism respectively. While there has been a plethora of comment on non-Western fundamentalism, itself a reaction to the undermining of more concrete ways of life, less has been said of the assertion of particular kinds of identity in the West--hence post September 11 'we are all Americans' (or after Bali, 'Australians'). Such identities are at once transient and performative, yet permit no deviation--a kind of mobile fundamentalism in their own right.
After the Bali bombings, a prominent Balinese academic, Luh Ketut Suryani, talked about some of the baleful effects that mass tourism had brought to Bali. (5) Drawing a distinction between tourism and mass tourism, she claimed that the latter had brought 'prostitution, drugs, gambling, paedophilia' and thus undermined much of the traditional culture. She hoped that one positive effect of the Bali attack would be that we might be able to rethink processes of cultural exchange so that they took less instrumental forms in the future. She was quick to point out that this was not to level any blame at the victims of the Bali attacks, but merely to indicate that mass tourism at an economic and cultural level is not the innocent activity it is often made out to be. John Powers asks 'how many learned that the two flattened nightclubs, the Sari Club and Paddy's Irish Bar, let tourists in for free but turned away Indonesians unless they paid a special fee?' (6) All this is merely to ask whether the structures that underwrite the expansion of capital (in this case mass tourism) are ultimately sustainable. Given the exclusive preoccupation of the West with locating terror 'outside', however, such questions become difficult to even pose.
Slavoj Zizek once remarked that if you wanted to know why the birds attack in the Hitchcock film of the same name, you carefully analysed all the scenes without the birds. (7) The same might be said for Platform and for the contemporary global situation, both of which contain a sudden attack of otherness that comes 'from nowhere'. Imagine Platform without the terrorist intervention--Michel and Valerie falling in love on a Thai beach, slowly forming a bourgeois relationship. Such a scenario would be impossible to sustain, for the world's arch-nihilist, and certainly unrealistic given the hollowed-out universe that Houellebecq's novels reveal. Yet if we are to link Houllebecq's novels to actual conditions, it is precisely this impossible situation that the West is attempting to cultivate. In a search for enemies, for real and imagined terrors elsewhere, we ignore the contradictions and terrors within. As we fortify ourselves against external attack, close down the liberal sphere of debate, subject ourselves to unprecedented surveillance, and pre-emptively begin to reject all forms of difference, it is worth remembering the end of Houellebecq's previous novel Atomised, where humanity replaces itself through cloning. This radical desublimation of desire was proffered as a means to solve the dilemma of freedom and responsibility. One might ask, given the West's current trajectory, whether this post-human future is the logical extension of a mindset that can only find terror 'outside'?
(1.) J. Baudrillard, 'The Despair of Having Everything', in Le Monde Diplomatique, Nov., 2002.
(2.) The Prix Novembre and the 2002 IMPAC Dublin award.
(3.) S. Rushdie, 'A Platform for Closed Minds', Guardian, C. Hitchens, 28 Sept. 2002. 'The Stupidiest Religion', Free Inquiry, vol. 22, no.4, 2002.
(4.) J. Powers, 'On Paradise Lost and Lost and Lost', LA Weekly, 25 Oct. 2002.
(5.) E. Ellis, 'It's an End to Bali's Evils: Bali Academic', Australian, 22 Oct. 2002, p. 4.
(7.) S. Zizek, The Hitchcockian Blot' in Allen and Gonzales (eds); Alfred Hitchcock: Centenary Essays, London, BFI Publishing, 1090, p. 125.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2002|
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