Stereotyped images of the West and the East in Michel Houellebecq’s novel “Platform”
Stereotyped images of the West and the East in Michel Houellebecq’s novel “Platform”
Throughout the history both the Eastern and the Western parts of the world had a certain image of each other as of the opposites. The world division into ‘us’ and ‘them’ had certainly brought a number of stereotypes and prejudices. With the development of tourism, the humanity has got more opportunities to travel around the world and to discover foreign cultures. However, travelling did not eliminate all the stereotypes filling human minds. “Platform”, the second novel of controversial French author Michel Houellebecq, reveals some clichés and prejudices of modern society.
This work aims to analyse stereotyped images of the West and the East civilisations described in the novel, and to investigate the reason of their usage, as well as the impact they make on the prejudiced characters. In order to make the analysis more effective, the essay will cover the most prominent stereotypes based on the nation, gender, sexuality, and religion. In order to elaborate a clear line of analysis of the novel, which is a vivid example of postmodern literature, the essay arguments are based on the works of postmodern critical theorists writing on the Western and the Eastern civilisations (such as Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Homi K. Bhabha, etc.). To make the analysis more comprehensive the essay includes the researches of psychiatrist, psychologists, psychoanalysis theorists and sociologists, as well as political scientists and communication theorists (Samuel P. Huntington, Walter Lippmann, Anthony Giddens, Gordon Allport, Sigmund Freud, Slavoj Žižek, William Cox, Patricia Devine, etc.)
By following Foucault’s theory of knowledge that constitutes power (Foucault, 1977), as well as his idea of care of the self that occurs through the concern for truth (Foucault, 1997), depiction of the most gaudy and vulgar stereotypes brings the reader closer to the reality. Knowledge of stereotypes equips one with the power, which is supposed to be applied to overcome the social stigmas according to Jacques Derrida’s ideas of differentiation of the ‘wholes’ and the ‘groups’, accepting heterogeneity of the ‘Others’ (Derrida, 2003).
According to Gordon Allport’s theory, prejudices appear when one divides the society into in- (‘us’) and out-groups (‘them’). The in-group is usually perceived by its members as favourable heterogeneous society, while the out-group tends to be seen as homogeneous derogate opposition (Allport, 1979). The objects of stereotyping are usually components of identity (such as sexuality, gender, nation, race, religion). The identity itself is an unstable notion, which can change throughout the life (Giddens, 1991). Therefore, investigating one’s identity a person can easily shift from one group to another, and a former out-group can become his in-group. Yet, the prejudices do not disappear. Moreover, they cause depression, which is a comorbid disease (Cox, Abramson, Devine, Hollon, 2012).
To start the investigation of the stereotypes of the East and the West, it is vital to define the main notions. What do we call the West? What is supposed to be the East? The boundary between these two concepts is not merely geographical. Throughout the time the borderline has been drawn on cultural, religious, and ideological differences.
Western civilisation is defined as the one based on the classical culture of Greece and Rome, influenced by Christian tradition, Renaissance and Enlightenment of the modern era. The 15th – 20th centuries added a notable feature to the portrait of the Western civilisation – expansive colonial period (Quigley, 1979, p. 149). Thus, any non-Western civilisation, which did not derive from classical antiquity, Western Christianity or tradition of Enlightenment supposed to belong to the Eastern world. According to the most prominent Orientalist Edward Said, the East is the world of colonised Orient, a lesser brother and a “weaker partner” (Said, 1979, p.40).
The Cold War has shifted the boundaries, moving them from cultural to ideological differences. The East-West dichotomy became the driving force of the late 20th century history, when the East and the West struggled for the domination over the Third World. This struggle has brought a new entity to a previously double sided society. The Third World spread from Latin America on the West to Indonesia on the East did not belong to either Western (capitalist) or Eastern (socialist) block. Thereby, the binary opposition of The Dominion (The West) and the Colony (The East) was demolished and replaced by two superpowers (two major dominions) – The West and The East – seeking an ideological domination over neutral Developing countries.
With the end of the Cold War cultural similarities became more relevant and replaced ideological nexus. The People’s Republic of China can serve as an example: it is gradually becoming one of the major players on the East Asian market, growing rapidly in economic terms and expanding its relations with the Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. Common culture is the catalyst of Chinese integrity with the overseas Chinese communities in other Asian countries (Huntington, S. P., 1996, p. 35).
Culture and religion, according to Samuel P. Huntington, establish a new core that draws people together and forms civilisation. The concept of each civilisation serves as the axis of conflicts:
Civilisation identity will be increasingly important in the future, and the world will be shaped in large measure by the interactions among seven or eight major civilisations. These include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilisation. The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilisations from one another (ibid., p. 33).
But even dividing the world into several major civilisations, Huntington identifies the Western civilisation as the whole, comprising the United States and Canada, Western and Central Europe, Australia and Oceania (ibid., p. 75). Thus, the East-West dichotomy is still present, retaining The West and replacing The East by a broader term ‘Non-Western civilisations’. Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and African civilisations are heterogeneous parts of the whole Non-Western world, opposed to the Western civilisation. Samuel P. Huntington described the major conflict of the future in Kishore Mahbubani's phrase, as the conflict between "the West and the Rest" (ibid., p. 43).
The conflict of “the West and the Rest” is one of the major issues of Michel Houellebecq’s novel “Platform”. The controversy is presented through a number of stereotypes, which are mainly based on one’s nation: “Hong Kong Chinese – recognisable by their filthy manners” (Houellebecq, 2003, p. 104); but could also reflect a social status: “Like a typical, average tourist: I rented a sun-lounger with a fitted mattress, a parasol; I consumed a number of bottles of Sprite” (ibid., p. 105). Stereotypes can be based on one’s occupation: “about thirty, with a receding hairline, his hair tied back in a ponytail; he wore an Adidas tracksuit, a Prada tee-shirt and a pair of battered Nikes: in short, he looked like a behavioural sociologist” (ibid., p. 167); or religious views: “if there were Arab mathematics, poets and scientists, it is simply because they lost the faith” (ibid., p. 251).
The novel is rightly called controversial, as it raises a number of questions not providing its reader with the clear answer. Why does one need to fill the book with such a great amount of flashy and often preposterous clichés? Is the novel truly “a resurrection of the old anti-liberal, anti-Semitic, anti-Dreyfusard tradition in French thought and society”, as James Buchan claims? (Buchan, 2002) Or does the stereotyping serve a certain reason?
Stereotypes are defined as psychological representations of the characteristics of people that belong to particular groups (McGarty, Yzerbyt, Spears, 2002, p. 2). One of the major characteristics of stereotypes is their shared nature:
Stereotypes attract little attention when they are not shared by many people. If every individual had a very different stereotype of some group then those stereotypes would be of little interest. Shared stereotypes, for example, are useful for predicting and understanding the behaviour of members of one group to another (ibid., p. 5).
At a glimpse, one can see no connection between the stereotypes of sex and gender, nation and race, professional occupation and social status. However, the subject of stereotyping is thoroughly chosen. In a modern world the question of identity becomes one of the major issues, which can be solved by analysis of one’s racial, sexual, and social backgrounds.
The era of Postmodernism has shifted the axis of identity search from stable categories of ‘class’ and ‘gender’ to broader terms like ‘geographical location’, ‘political views’, ‘sexual orientation’, etc. If former identity was established primarily by class and gender matters, which mostly maintained unchanged throughout a person’s life, now identity building became a continuing process. Constant development makes construction of identity an ongoing process, eternal and never ending. As Anthony Giddens pointed out, one’s identity is a capacity to keep a story of one’s life going:
A person's identity is not to be found in behaviour, nor — important though this is — in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going. The individual's biography, if she is to maintain regular interaction with others in the day-to-day world, cannot be wholly fictive. It must continually integrate events which occur in the external world, and sort them into the ongoing 'story' about the self (Giddens, 1991, p. 54).
Categories of social and geographical location, race and sexuality – are the main matters that form one’s identity on a daily basis. As Homi K. Bhabha states, in the era of ‘post’ (postmodernism, postcolonialism, poststructuralism) humanity are moving beyond familiar categories to explore the identity:
The move away from the singularities of ‘class’ or ‘gender’ as primary conceptual and organisational categories, has resulted in an awareness of the subject positions – of race, gender, generation, institutional location, geopolitical locale, sexual orientation – that inhabit any claim to identity in the modern world (Bhabha, 1994, p. 1).
The search of identity or, in other words, identification is not possible without addressing the environment. If one exists in a society, the society cannot be excluded from the scope of research interests. Reality implies a number of additional circumstances, which should be taken into account while investigating one’s personality. Houellebecq sets up the “Platform’s” characters into a ‘travelling mode’. The novel’s protagonists solve their racial, social and sexual issues while travelling to Thailand and Cuba, exploring Paris and its suburbs. The main action takes place in hotels, touristic cafes, massage parlours, airplanes, trains, and buses. As Homi K. Bhabha claims:
There is a return to the performance of identity as iteration, the re-creation of the self in the world of travel, the resettlement of the borderline community of migration (ibid., 1994, p. 9).
In “Platform” the community of migration is presented as a multiple and reciprocal phenomenon. On the one hand, there is a reverence of Egyptian man, whom Michel, the main protagonist, had met three years earlier the events described in the novel. The man is a “brilliantly successful” genetic engineer, who works and lives in England and “nurtured a lifelong … and highly notional passion for France” (Houellebecq, 2003, p. 250). He adores Europe as a contrast to Egyptian Muslim desert, arguing that the islamisation of the East has devastated intellectual and cultural potential of the Eastern countries: “Since the appearance of Islam, nothing. An intellectual vacuum, an absolute void.” (ibid., p. 251). Any interest in the desert is, according to this character, degradation, a step backward. Thus, acceptance of the Western cultural and social standards is supposed to be a movement forward, the only normal behaviour: “In your noble Western culture … can you name anyone who was drawn to the desert? Only pederasts, adventurers and crooks… Nothing great or noble, nothing generous or wholesome; nothing which has contributed to the progress of humanity or raised it above itself” (ibid., p. 253).
On the other hand, there is a European migrant – Andreas, a German citizen, who had been living in Thailand for ten years. This character claims that “it is very difficult to leave Thailand” (ibid., p. 324). The cost of living in Thailand is low, Thai children are “less quick-tempered and less prone to tantrums. For their parents they felt a respect bordering on veneration” (ibid., p. 323). Andreas is married to a Thai girl whom he had met in a massage parlour. Now he lives a happy life in a sunny country.
Michel Houellebecq describes the choice of Thailand as a setting to his novel as a result of his fascination of Thailand’s adaptability:
Everyone goes there. The Anglo-Saxons go there. The Chinese go there. The Japanese go there. The Arabs go there, too. That was the strangest part (Houellebecq, 2013).
In fact, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation that has never been colonised (Malhotra, 2006). While the neighbouring countries became colonies of France and Great Britain, Thailand remained a sovereign monarchy and served as a buffer state between the parts of Southeast Asia.
Reflecting on the history of Thailand the main protagonist establishes connection between the country politics at times of colonisation and those during the World War II. When Japan entered the war in 1941, Japanese government decided to build a railway connecting Burma and Singapore. The railway, which later on will bear a name of “the Death Railway”, was built by Asian labourers and Allied prisoners of war. About 90,000 of the labourers and about 16,000 Allied prisoners died during the construction of the railway (Hell Fire Tours (Thailand) Co., Ltd., 2008-2011).
As one of the characters puts it, Thailand “had signed a military pact with the Japanese without actually declaring war on the Allies”. (Houellebecq, 2003, p. 59) The government of Thailand declared war on Britain and the United States on January 25, 1942. However, while the Thai ambassador in London delivered the declaration of war to the British administration, Seni Pramoj, Thai ambassador to Washington D.C., refused to do so, instead organising a Free Thai movement (CPAmedia.com). Michel ironically refers to such politics as to “the way of wisdom” and “subtlety of mind” that allowed the nation to remain free (Houellebecq, 2003, p. 59).
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- Literature Postmodernism Stereotypes Houellebecq West East Identity Self Other In-groups Out-groups Culture Prejudice