Tag Archives: literature

Submission – an almost perfect storm

Michel Houellebecq is an author with the capacity to alter, if not enhance, the way I see the world.

When, in his previous novel The Map and the Territory he had the character named Michel Houellebecq brutally murdered, I took that to imply that he was burying the author Michel Houellebecq too. The publication of his latest novel Submission, last month, was therefore a very welcome surprise.

The novel has had its dose of pre-publication controversy, owing to its theme: a France that elects a muslim president in the year 2022. It appears all the more sensitive in the light of the recent assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which ironically coincided with the book’s release in France.

Soumission CoverA perfect storm

I found Submission to be a typical Houellebecq novel: exposing and exploring the instabilities of our civilisation, and using these observations to make a scenario that at first sight seems far-fetched (almost) credible. The author masters the art of creating a perfect storm out of several minor depressions, building up so seamlessly that the reader is bound to get sucked in.

The result of this perfect storm is, of course, the eventual inauguration of an extremely capable muslim politician as the president of France. But the new president is not at the centre of the story: we only become aware of the political changes through the observations of the novel’s narrator: an academic named François.

A turn to religion

With François we are in familiar Houellebecq-territory: an unpretentious lonesome Parisian man of a certain age with a modest appetite for socialising – more spectator than actor. François’ career is built around the work of 19th-century author Huysmans, whose quest for happiness eventually saw him becoming a devout catholic.

François’ observations of Huysmans are craftily intertwined with the changes to the world around him, allowing Houellebecq to portray France’s new regime not as a turn to islam, but much more as a turn to religion, complete with the re-valuation of the family as its cornerstone.

Europe’s suicide

Throughout the story François has a number of chance encounters with colourful characters, all of them male and capable of long monologues, who in turn contribute to an intricate analysis of modern-day Europe, thereby setting the scene for the extraordinary revolution that takes place while François eats his ready meals and undertakes his haphazard trips.

One of these characters brings up a parallel with the demise of the Roman Empire, quoting philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee who said that societies usually die of suicide, not assassination. The suggestion is that 21st-century Europe is worn and weak, and void of ideas as well as leadership, making it fragile enough to submit itself to an alternative ideology – that of islam.

Submission of woman to man

Submission wouldn’t be a Houellebecq novel if there wasn’t a constant lingering of François’ sexual desires, and many of his reflections on the changing society outside his apartment seem to centre on how they might affect his access to pleasure. While he quietly deplores the disappearance of the miniskirt from Paris’ streets, he develops a fascination for polygamy.

While on the surface the novel may emphasise the submission of man to religion, the implied submission of woman to man is as important a strand, and a more troublesome one to swallow. Houellebecq chose to circumnavigate any female perspectives in Submission, perhaps because that was convenient for his plot, but hopefully also to make a point to his audience – that even a moderate islamic rule would greatly affect gender equality. The same Houellebecq, after all, gave us the unforgettable motto “DEMAIN SERA FEMININ” in one of the early chapters of Atomised.

In all, Houellebecq once again fascinated me with his big observations, his diagnosis of present-day Europe, and his well-underpinned speculations on the next crossroads that our society may stumble upon. Recent events continue to vindicate his remarks on the volatility of the European electorate and the inadequacy of mainstream parties. However, his perfect storm is too engineered and will no doubt be tempered by the reality that women make up half of the electorate as well as an increasing proportion of the leadership.

We now own another bit of you: Agree or Cancel

The question how modern technology affects modern democracy has always been a popular one among writers of fiction, and the answer usually has a hint of dystopia to it. To me there is something irresistible about these ominous scenarios, probably because they speak to my fears about our inability to control what we create.

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art) The latest bit of doom fiction I devoured was Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle (2013). It pictures a social media company – The Circle – that has superseded and incorporated all the current Internet giants and their services, most notably Google, Facebook and Twitter. As it grows, it inevitably turns its interest to politics, and soon enough politicians are coerced into needing The Circle to assert their credibility. The novel cleverly depicts this as a step-by-step process, where it is difficult to determine which of these steps might raise sufficient alarm for an independent authority to intervene. By the end of the story, it is all but inevitable that signing up to The Circle becomes mandatory for all citizens, and that their democratic participation will be channelled through the social network.

All the while The Circle profiles itself, very successfully, as a benign enterprise, a movement that changes the world for the better by making all information available, phasing out uncertainty – or in the lingo of The Circle, ‘secrets’. Full and total transparency, according to the company’s philosophy, will benefit every citizen, facilitating decision-making and exposing risks. In return for all this help, citizens only need to open themselves up to The Circle, sharing all that can be known about them so that the network can provide them with tailored services, offers and suggestions, resulting in better and more efficient lives.

This, of course, is the crux of the power relationship: in the end The Circle, just as its likes in the real world, provides programmes and algorithms – its users provide the data that enables it to dominate the Internet. The more information people supply – by posting on a social network, making an online purchase, or sending an email – the greater The Circle’s ability to aggregate relevant information, and the greater the draw to others to join the network. And true enough, virtually everyone will at some point succumb, as the vastness of the information and services offered will seem worth giving up a bit of one’s privacy.

“…today most of us are already citizens of the Internet as much as we are citizens of our countries or cities.”

Of the many thoughts provoked by The Circle, the most salient one to me is the question how our existing democratic mechanisms will fare as the digital symbiosis of Internet companies and citizens continues to thrive. While society moves in a direction that sees us rely ever more on Google, Facebook and others, we have little or no formal ways to influence their behaviour, with the only alternative to ‘Agree’ usually being ‘Cancel’.

I would argue that today most of us are already citizens of the Internet as much as we are citizens of our countries or cities. Such a dual citizenship indeed suggests that the significance of our offline citizenship is eroding, and that the democratic control that we have over our decision-makers covers only part of our existence. With the balance shifting towards online life, and with politicians gratefully embracing social media to comment, engage and campaign, I wonder how long it will take for elections to be replaced by a pop-up asking us whether we agree with the proposals or choose to be excluded.