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  • The Other Spaces of La Moustache
  • François Kiper (bio)

Emmanuel Carrère’s novel La Moustache crystallizes the profoundly unnerving horror of being engulfed by the disorienting normlessness of a posthumanist world whose truths belong to a palimpsest that is arbitrarily scraped clean and reinscribed before one can settle on their existence. Carrère plumbs the depths of this nerve-racking reality—of finding that one despairs of any means whatsoever of anchoring memory and perception in truth—and, in so doing, evokes the psychological atmosphere of unappeasable anxiety that is characteristic of Franz Kafka’s novels and short stories. La Moustache mercilessly vivisects the crumbling psyche of its protagonist, Marc Thiriez, subverting each of the pillars of certitude upon which his sanity rests—family, friends, and above all, faith in his capacity to experience and recall his own life—and ultimately leaves Marc no alternative but to surrender to the entropic exhaustion of an existence bereft of any subjective certainty, in the teeth of a trap whose illogical perversity admits of no escape.

As Carrère delves into the tortured contortions of Marc’s unravelling mind, he is also laying bare the equally harrowing, invisible Bourdieusan universe which informs the “trivial but consuming activities” of a staggeringly nondescript bourgeois young professional Everyman. Underlying its gripping portrayal of mental illness, La Moustache dramatizes the seminal revelations of Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice: namely, that the modern psyche, which is ostensibly freely self-determining and untrammeled by institutionalized discourse, is in fact systematically prescribed by the unwritten protocols of doxa—Bourdieu’s term for the cultural phenomenon whereby a commonplace (for example, the notion that change is synonymous with progress) is formulated as an article of faith and endowed with the authority of being self-evident and objective—which in turn implants the false consciousness of conventionality into the individual’s subjective consciousness, thereby rendering him unquestioningly obeisant to unwritten dictates of society whereof he remains unawares, and collectively forming “the orchestration of [the] habitus…[t]he production of a commonsense world endowed with the objectivity secured by consensus on the meaning of practices of the world” (Bourdieu 1977, 129). This insidious centripetal-centrifugal process of subject formation culminates by shaping the axiomatic truths which serve as the foundation of individual agency. Therefore, [End Page 411] beneath its veneer of a raw, jarring Kafkaesque character study that unflinchingly probes the recesses of the human mind in the throes of being severed from the moorings of sanity, La Moustache treats its protagonist’s mental breakdown as the excruciatingly piecemeal disintegration of modern man as a socius, powerfully melding psychopathology with sociology, and echoing Michel Foucault’s famous declaration that “the madman is an avatar of our capitalist societies.”

In La Moustache, the machinery of modern urban centers that so comfortably synchronizes our professional selves, our intimate relationships and, worst of all, our inner lives becomes terrifyingly dehiscent. Marc Thiriez’s existence was once irredeemably—and quite happily—bureaucratized and spatialized. However, starting with the absurdist premise that none of his Parisian friends and family recognize that he has just-shorn the moustache that he had worn nearly all his adult life, everything that Marc takes for granted about himself will explode and disintegrate against the backdrop of centrifugally “open” urban spaces. Each spatialized locus of certainty that anchors Marc’s life is thus turned outwards into so many confounding lacunae of ontological (self-)doubt. La Moustache’s nightmarish nexus between space and identity calls to mind the interrelated body of thought of Bourdieu and Foucault, and specifically underscores their common emphasis on the implacable human need to demarcate one’s own mental and physical “space” in spite of our terrible powerlessness to do so. Therefore, bringing the Bourdieusian concepts of doxa and habitus and the Foucauldian concept of heterotopia into dialogue with Carrère’s novel can enrich our understanding of the intersections between these two seminal thinkers, who share an imperative to chart the territory of the “unthought” in social and cultural reproduction (Bourdieu) as “a knower straying far afield of himself” (Foucault 1986), while also underlining the timeliness of continuing to grapple with the “enigmatic...


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pp. 411-419
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