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Against The New Naive: ‘Innocence’, Branding, & Michel Houellebecq
Joe Kennedy , February 28th, 2012 09:01

Making reference to "grating" artist Robert Montgomery and the Western quest for washy naïveté, Joe Kennedy wonders if controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq might have the antidote

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If you've been around Hoxton Square lately – as unpromising a start to an article as you're likely to see this year, I know, but bear with me – you've probably noticed several billboards displaying short poems in LEDs. These texts are the work of Scottish conceptual artist Robert Montgomery. Now, it's unlikely that one expects much of the art which emanates from this part of N1 to endure, but, although they've only been around for a few weeks, Montgomery's pieces seem unusually haunted by suggestions of imminent datedness. The most prominent, above the door of host gallery KK Outlet, reads:


Describing precisely what's so grating about this is tough. Broadly, though, it's the insincere stab at starry-eyed ingenuousness which comes to the fore particularly, though not exclusively, in the saccharine metaphor, fridge-magnet capitalisation, and exaggeratedly remedial punctuation. It's bad enough that supermarkets will rename products to please the demands of annoyingly precocious three-year-olds, a symptom of the current ubiquity of twee tropes in marketing, without self-declaredly radical art getting in on the nicey-nicey act.

'Radical' is how Montgomery styles himself. Interviewed in the Independent recently, he recounted how Situationism had been a "point of obsession" for him since his art school days. Situationism, to offer a – very - brief summary, was a 60s strand of French post-Marxism which proposed that consumer capitalism reduced all experience to mere spectacle, diminishing the individual's capacity for self-realisation and mediating all encounters with the external world. In Montgomery's usefully concise précis, the movement's figurehead Guy Debord sought to describe "a society where we live divorced from real life, surrounded by images designed to sell us things and give us paranoia".

Artistic responses to Situationism's theorising have attempted to undermine the spectacle in order to provoke a radical questioning of the everyday, an act which might serve as the beginning of some form of return to 'real life'. However, the character of the image has changed. Disregarding the fact that KK Outlet is, in its own words, a 'hybrid environment […] designed to help deliver original creative solutions for the development of brands, products and contents', the problem with Montgomery's rehearsed naivety is that it corresponds precisely to the note struck by so much of the media 'designed to help sell us things'.

Everywhere we look, we see companies (not to mention reactionary politicians) playing up their chumminess, their just-wanting-to-be-there-for-you, their ethical commitment, their passion, their desire to envelop the customer in glutinous love. The spectacle no longer promises financial or even sexual success as an incentive to spend or borrow money: more perniciously, it insists that it will help us to revert to a state of cosseted infancy. Every ad break is a relentless confection of prelapsarian kitsch, depicting sunnily undulating pasturelands on which uncontaminated food is grown and reared, and tableaux of unadulterated, yet strangely unsatisfying-looking, 'happiness' in which no-one is ever asked to deal with a tax return, undertaker, or speeding ticket. Everybody is permanently twenty-eight, drinking bottomless pints of Magners on an endless Sunday afternoon somewhere not too far from Chipping Norton.

It's this trend that leads you to wonder if Montgomery doesn't really know his enemy. As another of the billboards shows, his is effectively a black-and-white world in which the moral failures of capitalism can be corrected by simply sending the archetypal city bloke back to the land: 'YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO LOOK AT THE SKY AGAIN, YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO EAT FOOD THAT GROWS WHERE YOU LIVE AGAIN.' If only it were so simple. Oppositions between belligerently acquisitive urban capitalism and an idealised pastoral ignore the new set-up, in which everybody seems to want to repudiate modernity in favour of some long-lost innocence and ease. The reclamation of lived experience from the spectacle is a long-held cornerstone of Situationism, but it has been cheapened by lifestyle-mag imperatives to 'seek out the magic of the everyday' (exhortations, in other words, to live childishly) which foreclose the possibility of considering the political landscape with an adult conscience. There's a very, very fine line between transforming the urban environment into a livable poem and whimsical escapism, and Montgomery seems to fall on the wrong side of it.

Naivety in art is nothing novel, of course. Even before the 60s gave us the schoolboy surrealism of 'Yellow Submarine' and Piper at the Gates of Dawn, everyone from Blake and Wordsworth to Pollock and Kerouac had bemoaned the way industrial society deprived us of contact with our natural selves. In recent years, there's been a paradoxical – because so much of it has taken place on blogs – celebration of an aesthetic of pre-technological callowness which has expanded, in variously odd ways, into a loose coalition of the affectedly 'unaffected' encompassing everyone from writers like Tao Lin to musicians such as Joanna Newsom. Now, though, there are stirrings of disquiet at the increasing amount of common ground artless art and twee politics have with modern branding: Meryl Trussler's recent Quietus piece on 'cupcake feminism' and Dorian Lynskey's combative blog post on 'The Tweelight of the Gods' are cases in point.

An antidote to the simplicities of the new naïve might be found in the latest novel by Michel Houellebecq, a figure perhaps most famous – well, notorious – on this side of the channel for writing about sex tourism and making provocative statements about Islam. When he's not generating headlines as France's foremost controversialist, his contrarian tendencies are channeled into fiction which has, since his debut Whatever, been uncannily sharp in its diagnoses of cultural malaise. Houellebecq's strength is his distaste for straw-man solutions, which seems to stem from his hostility towards newspaper liberalism. The Map and the Territory, published in English translation late last year, is perhaps the first literary work to take stock of the latter-day valorisation of simplicity.

The story of a youngish painter and photographer, featuring Houellebecq himself as a character, The Map and the Territory is an account of exactly why we can't go back and why "learning to eat food that grows where we live again" is inherently problematic. In an early critical work, Houellebecq wrote perceptively on how the horror and malignancy of H.P. Lovecraft's stories was spurred by his anguished realisation that the simple pleasures of childhood could not be recaptured, that there could be no temps retrouvé as there had been for Proust. Since then, Houellebecq has worked along the tracks of irredeemable disappointment first cut by Lovecraft to, in a manner not dissimilar to some black metallers, lay waste to the notions of consolation modern culture presents us with. As its name indicates, The Map and the Territory encourages us to consider the distance between the reality of innocence and its presentation as spectacle: the book's satirical force is directed in no small part against the present-day French obsession with terroir, the allegedly inherent connection between geographical origin and identity.

Houellebecq's scepticism addresses itself to a fad, which contemporary Britain and France clearly have in common, for the rustic and pre-industrial. At one point a character, employed by Michelin to rate restaurants for their guidebooks, suggests cutting an establishment from the latest edition for its serving of non-French cuisine, pointing out that wealthy diners are no longer interested in the exotic, instead preferring the quaint and folksy. Tradition and heritage have, Houellebecq implies, become nothing more than a wan performance of authenticity. Like Lovecraft, we can't get back to our own childhoods, nor can we recuperate an unmediated collective past.

This is undoubtedly pessimistic, but it makes for oddly reassuring reading in an era when we're being lectured from all sides about the virtues of simplicity. Perhaps it shores up a flagging confidence in our ability to mature and confront overwhelming-seeming political realities with strategies more powerful than escapism. In any case, it's refreshing, even invigorating, to see that the widespread employment of baby-talk seems to be in the process of being checked. While artists like Montgomery are no doubt pure of motive, their alternative to the spectacle looks awfully like a reinforcement of it: while Houellebecq doesn't seem to have an answer as such, he's at least posing the right questions.

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Feb 28, 2012 2:54pm

Houellebecq makes sense in a sea of nonsense. Love the guy.
Map and the Territory was superb.

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Feb 28, 2012 3:20pm

Excellent piece. None too fond of Houellebecq personally - deplore his Islamophobia, in particular - but good to see a political reading of the tone of naivety that's not afraid to draw on theory. A word, though, in defence of Joanna Newsom: anyone who thinks of her as affectedly unaffected hasn't spent much time with her stuff - she is absolutely a technician and foregrounds her craft (complexity of rhythmic structures, internal rhymes, very long songs with multiple key and time changes, &c). The fact that she's so often misread as an ingenue can often, I think, be attributed to misogynist critics who can't see past her pretty nosie to her work.

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Feb 28, 2012 3:37pm

To be fair to Houellebecq, he stated that he finds all monotheistic religions stupid, not just Islam. I think he's dead right.

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Feb 28, 2012 3:55pm

RE Petra's comment: I agree that the strange dismissal of Joanna Newsom in some corners as some twee-peddler is an unfounded illusion - whatever you might think of her music, the remarkable complexity and intelligence that guides her work is far beyond any revivalist (and in writing ten-minute plus piece for harp...well, whi exactly is she reviving?? That sentence aside though, this was a superbly argued piece with a fine reading of Houllebecq. It's his total refusal to swim in the cultural tides that makes him one of the most significant writers of the time.

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Feb 28, 2012 4:09pm

In reply to :

He calls Islam the stupidest of all religions and defends Israel's occupations; really not OK. But I'm not wanting to derail from the points this piece makes, which I think are well argued and interesting.

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Feb 28, 2012 5:06pm

Er, hello. Rob Montgomery's full-time day job for the last 15 years has been advertising salesman/director for Dazed & Confused and Another Magazine. Nice guy but talk about know thy enemy.

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Feb 28, 2012 5:06pm

Spot on, although I don't think that this infantilisation of media and marketing is a new development by any stretch (others might disagree) CF: Ads for "Innocent" smoothies etc and affixing exerable terms like "village" to parts of east London which have had some new flats dumped on them....

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Lucia Lanigan
Feb 28, 2012 5:37pm

Yeah, that back-to-the-land-of-innocence fantasy is definitely perpetual (and casually pessimistic, I think).

Great article though. I fucking loathe these uninvited shoulder-rubs, whether they come from your mawkish artist there, or the copy that coats a packet of muesli, or the sleazy, market-researched 'nudge'-style fads that nudge proper politics ever further out of the mainstream.

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str8 bro
Feb 28, 2012 5:48pm

the spectacle is ace, though. what did people do before the spectacle? churn butter and listen to granny play the banjo? go to CHURCH? spare me.

petra: maybe people think joanna newsom as "affectedly unaffected" because she sings (and talks) in the voice of a kooky 5 year old girl?

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Feb 28, 2012 6:08pm

In reply to str8 bro:

That may be so, str8 bro (although high register/=childish), but she songwrites in the style of a fiend.

With you on the spectacle, though. Very fond of it.

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Feb 28, 2012 9:20pm

I'm bemused. Montgomery's words are intended to invite people to leave their surroundings, briefly, mentally. Just to have an explore and sense a potential contrast. Urban societies have given us a great deal, but we do undeniably pay a price. For me it's worth it; I don't want to return to some pastoral idyll. But I don't think we can pretend there isn't a good deal of disatisfaction and yearning going on. Which is why M's work resonates with so many. Here Joe Kennedy tries to stitch a few different concepts together with some decidedly wobbly criticism and doesn't quite succeed. Worse than that he doesn't appear to fully understand what naive actually means.

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Dan B
Feb 28, 2012 9:54pm

To fully dive in with this article's assertions, you have to assume that the field of semiotics is a given and that the signs mean the things that the author thinks that they mean. It's hardly axiomatic stuff, therefore you have to follow upon the tenuous ground upon which Debord et. al. already stand upon. I also would half-arsedly contend that the bleakness of Houllebecq is a fad in itself, a deliberately contrary position contrived by a contrary man, who is not alone or terribly idiosyncratic and indeed is writing when much of the music outside the mainstream is 'dark'.

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Feb 28, 2012 10:03pm

I would rather be momentarily taken out of my surroundings by a poem on a billboard, than celebrate a racist, islamophobic, misogynist in a poorly thought out article.

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Lucia Lanigan
Feb 29, 2012 11:01am

Right, but the point our man here makes is that this billboard *doesn't* take you out of your surroundings. It's the product of them - the 'hybrid environment designed to help deliver original creative solutions for the development of brands, products and contents' [i.e. warren of wankers on the make]. It's not so different from a Thomas Cook ad opposite your workplace.

What it boils down to is, people who understand ideas and what words mean tend to find Montgomery's stuff vacuous and a bit smarmy. The Situationists have inspired plenty of good art, but this isn't it. It's Moby's Play, when you could be listening to Byrne & Eno's My Life In The Bush of Ghosts.

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Feb 29, 2012 1:18pm

great author, vital modern literature... yeah, theres nothing new about montgomery, as has already been suggested, the guy is an ad man himself, so what would you expect other than work resembling adverts. ignore that shit, read houellebecq, and however offended you are by him, get over it touch sensitive prick.

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Feb 29, 2012 1:22pm

In reply to Dan B:

i wouldn't read too much into the 'poetic' semiotics referenced in this article old chap...

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Mar 1, 2012 12:14am

The beauty of the system is that it lets us believe we're free, that we have a choice. What do you think pays for the website you've read this pious drivel on? Advertising revenue. We're all implicated in some way, but high horses fall hardest.

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Mar 1, 2012 3:06pm

Pampers have always been the best brand for any incontinent pant-wetting knee-jerkery.

Be advised.

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Reggie P
Mar 1, 2012 9:31pm

Rose macaron in the Bellenden Renewal?

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Dsmond Traynor
Jan 27, 2013 1:37am

A link to my review of 'The Map and The Territory' for the Irish Sunday Independent:

I agree with the general thrust of your article, but leave Joanna Newsom alone. Glad to see a couple of other posters have taken issue with your reductive characterisation of her. For the record, I adore her, and her work.

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Aug 22, 2013 8:39pm

I was right with you up until Dorian Lynskey (U2 apologist) and Michel Houellebecq. OK, I admit that Houellebecq goes up a notch for me if he's fought this appalling innocence-of-youth-and-the-past bullshit. Great piece. Thank you.

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Dec 10, 2013 1:33pm

That Alan Greenspan has taken for his latest book's title Houellebecq's The Map and the Territory serves to show us the importance of the future being the space that should be contested, instead of wallowing in the fuzzy bract of some constructed arcadian past.

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