We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

Research & business

View Profile

Publication details for Dr Zoë Roth

Roth, Zoe (2013). Vita brevis, ars longa: ekphrasis, the art object, and the consumption of the subject in Henry James and Michel Houellebecq. Word & Image 29(2): 139-156.

Author(s) from Durham


In Henry James's The Wings of the Dove and Michel Houellebecq's La Carte et le territoire, the art object serves a double function: it encapsulates the materiality of the object and the signification of art, referring to both its aesthetic existence and its commodity status. On the one hand, it stands for observable commodity structures. On the other hand, it organises the affective impressions and thoughts that pass between characters, allowing meaning to circulate via the look in James, or artistic perspective in Houellebecq. As both object and art, the art object is entangled in commodified, libidinal, heuristic, and metaphysical economies. Both James and Houellebecq employ ekphrasis to formally frame the art object's role, critiquing free-market liberalism's commodification of human relationships and its reification of subjects into consumable objects. Ekphrasis also locates the art object vis-à-vis particular ways of seeing, which mirror the way in which subjective relations are structured through the manner we see and perceive others and how, in turn, our moral or ethical responses are shaped by this ‘gaze’. In this article, the author hopes to illuminate how ekphrasis recursively poses an ethical question about the economies of consumption, which objectify subjects in the texts and frame their relations to each other.