“Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace.”
An interview with Michel Houellebecq made its way into my twitter timeline. While I am tempted to read this new book I will admit at the outset that so far I’ve never finished a Houellebecq novel. I tried Atomised (or The Elementary Particles in the US translation), but it just felt a bit like sub-Vonnegut, self-indulgent gloominess. Of course there is plenty to be gloomy about, though I suspect Houellebecq is one of those contrarian types who in the drive to stake out their own purity shit on everyone else, especially those who are already not counted or are counted as less by the hegemonic forces in whatever society. So, in France that would of course include feminists (to a certain extent, for there is a form of feminism determined by the Enlightenment tradition that is rather reactionary) and immigrants (specifically postcolonial immigrants from North Africa). Reading the interview I felt more secure in my intuitions regarding Houellebecq, but in the midst of his clear trolling there was something like an insight. While there are moments of insight in Houellebecq’s own words, like the rather blunt pronouncement on the mainstream Enlightenment undergirding contemporary French identity, mostly I saw his remarks as simply manifesting a symptom that tells us something about European anxiety today.
I won’t summarize the book here. After all, I haven’t read it and you can simply read the interview for yourself. But in short it appears to offer a vision of France where a Muslim political party has taken the Presidency in a run-off with the far-right, racist Front National candidate. From there the political begins to filter down to the cultural as women begin to wear more conservative clothes, universities become “Islamic” (again, whatever that means, who knows), and male unemployment is ended causing male crime to drop. OK, so it’s a bit of a silly plot, but it comes out of this anxiety regarding the death of French identity (though we could say, despite his protests, European identity from Italy to Sweden since the same anxieties are violently manifest there).
What does it mean to state that the Enlightenment is dead? In the interview he goes on to point out that the far-left party fronted by Oliver Besancenot included a candidate on their ticket who wore “the veil” (who knows, in a French context, what this refers to). That is, the quest for a kind of abstractly universal and subtractive vision of the human being is dead. But of course that quest was always a fantasy since a truly subtractive vision of the human would have to subtract the Western shell of identity as well. For whatever reason, perhaps Lewis Gordon would see here an instance of bad faith, this is always missed by the mourner. And indeed when asked why he wrote the book he says something that sounds familiar. It is something that old men returning to their homelands often say. Something I saw a certain reactionary theologian say when he left behind the US to return to the fog laden, suspended midlands of England. Houellebecq says, “I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France, though these changes are not specifically French, but rather Western.” So, the former radical comes back and sees that some of the things he used to think he didn’t like have changed and there seems to be a lot more brown faces on the streets. This is not interesting. It is the usual fear middle-aged and old men have regarding their slide into irrelevance and the coming into vision of their own death. Find a therapist, but don’t pretend it makes for interesting theoretical work.
It’s the second reason he gives that suggests something interesting. “I think the second reason is that my atheism hasn’t quite survived all the deaths I’ve had to deal with. In fact, it came to seem unsustainable to me.” One might be tempted to read this as a part of facing death. The atheist, in the midst of his anxiety, starts to lose his nerve. But Houellebecq doesn’t suggest he’s become a Christian believer. Instead, he suggests that something like God is needed: “I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise.” I don’t know exactly what he means by God and he is far from clear in the interview. I suspect, in the light of the anxiety present in the interview, that it’s a matter of meaning, of being able to give oneself to something bigger, and all those usual laments regarding the death of grand narratives. That’s still not particularly interesting to me, though it does lead to a discussion that surfaces some interesting comments regarding secularism and antiracism. For the interviewer, journalist Sylvain Bourmeau, the defender of secularism is often the same militant antiracist. This is a common sense on the mainstream left, especially in French secularism, but in reality is riff with contradictions and weaknesses. French secularism does not embrace multiculturalism, the dominant proclaimed model in other European countries like the UK and Germany which covers over their own contradictions differently, but a blanching of difference. People are accepted not as who they are, but tolerated by repressing or pushing out of view those lived identities on the institutional level (Sartre’s remarks on this in Anti-Semite and Jew are still instructive). The reality is of course that you can’t erase yourself, you can’t be unseen, and hence the drive to force women to not wear “the veil” can be read as another instance to try and unsee what is seen. Of course the object isn’t to get everyone in grey sackcloth, but to make everyone be in some sense “French” and hence the blanching of difference ends in the political support for a particular identity.
But what do you do when that identity doesn’t work anymore? When the identity itself feels grey regardless of how much high fashion you dress it up in? Well, that leads, finally, to the interesting thing that emerges here. Islam has become a kind of marked identity in Europe. When Europeans walk down the street they see Muslims. It’s important to recognize here that I’m not talking about seeing “real Muslims”. While some of the anxiety regarding reported views on homosexuality or misogynistic views by Muslim men and so on is in my view a problem for those communities, they are also problems in the mainstream of culture as well where they do not carry the same level of anxiety. And you will find that, as in every community, there are intelligent people doing work there but since those who see Muslims rarely neighbor them or speak with them this isn’t part of what they simply catch in their gaze. So, this anxiety is not an anxiety over real Islam, even as the anxiety may be effecting real Islam and allowing for new configurations of the practice (the idea of ISIS being conditioned by Western ideas, for example). It is instead an anxiety over a projected Islam. What is seen is not real, but imaginary (how the European sees himself) and symbolic (how the Muslim is cast in relation to that European, gaining and giving meaning).
What is seen in this symbolic Islam is captured in the discarded title of the novel and the title it now bears: conversion and submission. For in the anxiety that ravages the imaginary of the Houellebecqean European today is the sense that they are the last men. They don’t believe in anything worth believing in. They can’t bring themselves to believe in a political or social Christianity. They can’t bring themselves to believe in politics. In history. In any big stories. And even those on the left who do, a contrarian like Houellebecq might claim, do so in a way that requires only their guilt. A recognition that Europe is criminal and so anything European they could believe in would be to believe in their own criminality. Houellebecq initially suggests a story of conversion as the remedy. For what the Muslim symbolizes for the European is the possibility of an identity that is grounded in something meaningful and made whole by that. There is a sense for some that this explains the phenomenon of “Westerners” (I always assume this mostly means “white Westerners”) converting to Islam and going off to wage a gap year jihad in Syria or wherever. That the form of Islam found in groups like ISIS are historically new while being organized according to a nostalgia for a nonexistent past seems to support this. (It’s interesting too that this conversion is a kind of conversion to a minority practice of Islam that is taken in the Western media to be hegemonic even though it lacks anything like spirituality or even a tradition within communities.) But even though there is a temptation towards conversion, it’s the same kind of temptation one sometimes feels to jump when they’re walking across a bridge. That is, it’s a suicidal temptation because the European cannot convert. Readers of Daniel Barber’s recent work will be able to make out something here. Playing with some of Dan’s ideas, we could say that the European cannot convert to Islam without converting Islam into European-Christianity. It would convert this Islam into the same structure of looking to a past and a future, but never now. The reason the European looks to this symbolic Islam is because Europe has failed, specifically because Europe has failed as a messianic project. And what would be required in a certain sense in this conversion is the conversion of conversion. It would be a something that is secured by a story from the past to the future being converted to nothing. The European cannot become nothing of their own accord, they cannot intend to be a symbolic Muslim. For this European the identity of the symbolic Muslim is split between meaningful and stable identity and a barbarism that would destroy society. So what is left to be done? Submit. The European submits to Islam and this submission allows for the bad faith of conversion to remain. Meaning will come, the sick society will be overcome, but it will come only through the projected other. This is bad faith precisely because the European to abdicate any responsibility for destroying their own sick society, it allows them to once again require the labor of the colonial subject to build some new Europe on behalf of the European.