Tom McCarthy: Serge, the hero of C, he loves war. He’s happy in the war. And I think his subjectivity, his identity, like that of the hero of Remainder, is a traumatic one, right. It’s a traumatic subjectivity.
So, I mean, we should talk about Freud here. You know, for Freud…especially the later Freud, trauma is not some aberration that happens to an unfortunate few but rather it’s the essential, fundamental structure of our being, right. And in essays like Beyond the Pleasure Principle this is the kind of conclusion he comes to. Humans repeat, traumatically, through pleasure towards death. And he ends up writing about like jellyfish reenacting that primal trauma of photosynthesis and stuff. And interestingly as well, he— This is tied in for Freud to writing, right. In that essay The Mystic Writing-Pad, he sees subjectivity and memory as being like that writing pad that again has a traumatic kind of imprint and then erases it but it’s still there at a deeper level to be retrieved. It’s quite interesting that trauma and writing go together as building blocks of subjectivity.
Another really vital thing for Freud is that the primal scene of trauma is not just a scene of pain, it’s a scene of pleasure as well. And so you know, by reenacting that moment, traumatized subjects, or subjects, are giving themselves as much pleasure as pain, you know. And this is Serge’s situation absolutely, I mean, to a tee. You know, he has this primal trauma in which pain and pleasure are combined in the figure of his dead sister, who’s kind of seduced him and then died. So she kind of packages… She’s a site in which pleasure and pain comes together.
And she herself is a kind of palimpsest for this massive global violence. Before her death she has these kind of Cassandra-like visions of the coming war, these prophecies of bodies being ripped open. So when after her death the actual war happens, this is…you know, he’s in that space. It’s almost like the sight of his pleasure/pain primal scene has been unpacked and is playing out in the real world. And of course the him this is like being a pig in shit, you know. Kid in a toy shop. I mean, this is fantastic stuff.
I mean, also with the war section in C, I was reading a lot of Marinetti when I write it, the futurist kind of visionary madman-slash-genius. And Marinetti also loves war, you know. Because what war ultimately represents for him is not a means to one ideology to triumph over another or for a state to expand its boundaries. But what war I think really is for Marinetti is a kind of assessing in which the limits of the self are breached, the limits of the bourgeois sovereign “I”…you know, identity are ruptured physically, when blood…you know, erupts beyond the body. And even more importantly kind of psychologically, or in a kind of psychic dimension, by just the—you know, as Deleuze would say, the hapticness the space that war is, you know. The self is no longer here where my thoughts end. It’s kind of distributed and networked and multiplied along the trajectories of ordinance and the flight paths of bullets and shells.
And this is very much— Marinetti is always making this kinda triangulation between war and sport and poetry, right. So the flight of a Howitzer is like the arc described by gymnast, or an acrobat, or a football player…which is like a line of poetry…which is like a machine gun. They kind of go around in this endless loop. And I think this is absolutely the kind of space and the kind of aesthetic that Serge is experiencing.
Intertitle: The Disrupted Self
When I say that C rejects the default mode dominating mainstream fiction, what I mean by this is that it rejects a kind of sentimental liberal humanism. And what I mean by that is a mode in which the self is the kind of central value. A self which is never put in doubt, which is never kind of given over or ruptured. By language, by contingency, by history, power, agenda…etc. You know, a self which is just absolute and given, and natural. A self which is kind of measured and validated by the authenticity of its emotion. So art just becomes a kind of outpouring of this sovereign (again) true, natural, emotion.
This is the kind of model that my work is rejecting. I see that model not just as a cultural model that dominates not just fiction but all of mainstream culture but as a kind of substratum of the dominant kind of political or economic logic of our era. I mean, in that arena as well, a kind of self, an individual is posited which is kind of intimately tied in with capitalism. But overwritten with a kind of rhetoric of entitlement and sovereignty and a right to self-expression, and so on. And I think this model is being…you know, hammered home culturally at every moment and kind of exported quite aggressively around the world. It seems to me that every political order has its kind of official crap art, you know. The official crap art of the Soviet regimes was socialist realism. And the official crap art of neoliberal regimes, or orders, is sentimental humanism.
Intertitle: The Post-Modern Tendency
So in the early 90s I used to have this t‑shirt that had William Burroughs on it in a suit and hat. And he was holding a massive machine gun. And it said underneath “We intend to destroy all dogmatic verbal systems.” And the one time I met Derrida, I wore it, you know. Because it seemed like the right thing to wear. And, um… Yeah, I mean I love Burroughs. He’s a brilliant writer. And for him the act of writing isn’t just aesthetic, it’s political and metaphysical. So his whole notion of the cut-ups… You know, he sees the whole world as being, in this quite paranoid way, as being kind of scripted. Whereas for his Puritan predecessors it would be scripted by God. For Burroughs, and similar for Pynchon, it’s scripted by the man, you know, by media conglomerates working hand in hand with the CIA, the FBI, political power. I mean there is no… You know, this is not entirely untrue.
So for Burroughs you know, cutting up the kind of dominant script of that order is a way of short circuiting it, of kind of bringing it crashing down. And at the same time of producing fantastic kind of poetry. I mean, these two are not separate things, they’re one and the same. There is a project.
And yeah, but in terms of bringing down grand narratives… I mean, the definition of postmodernism that the I really you know, subscribe to is— You know, ’cause so often postmodernism is just used in this kind of periodizing way. It’s like oh, it’s what comes after modernism, it’s a style of fiction. And this is kind of wrong, for me. I mean the… You know, Jean-François Lyotard defines it in The Postmodern Condition very simply. He says postmodernism has got nothing to do with periods or time. It is simply an attitude of incredulity towards grand narratives, right. It’s a tendency to fragment, fracture, undermine, subvert grand narratives. And this is…this is good. Ror me this is what… This is a kind of meaningful way of using that term.
And I think there’s something— You know, lots of the writers that I’m most kind of excited by are doing that. I mean, it has nothing to do with…you know, some…movement that begins in ’62, you know. You could see it happening in Cervantes, you know. What is Don Quixote but a continual interruption of certain chivalric codes?
But I guess it does kind of come to a head in the 20th century with something like Joyce. I mean, Stephen Daedalus, the hero of Ulysses, wanders around hearing echoes of the ruin of all space, you know, shattered glass and toppling masonry and time one livid final flame. So I think that kind of destructive tendency is um…is great, you know.
And tied in with that then is a kind of possibility of recombination. You know, once grand narratives are brought crashing down, all the fragments… You know, the artist becomes like a kid with Lego. Rebuilding. Collaging. And this has been the adventure of lots of art in the 20th century.
Kafka’s a big presence in C. Especially towards the end, where Serge becomes an insect. I mean, it’s a blatant kind of plugging into The Metamorphosis. And all these “K” terms come back. Like, you know…K. You know. That’s the Kafka letter par excellence.
But also I mean, Kafka is… One thing That really strikes me in Kafka is the role played by technology in his books. So technology is kind of…sacred, but was so frightening on. So there’s a story called a In the Penal Colony where he describes a writing machine that writes the law onto criminals’ bodies. It’s like this massive tattooing thing or a record stylus. And the criminal is stripped and put under the machine like an unpressed bit of vinyl. And this kind of stylus leisurely writes the law on to his body. And the genius of Kafka is that it doesn’t just write you know, what he’s done wrong. He is accused of this—he is guilty of this crime. All it writes is “Be just.” So the law just writes the law, but not the law’s content. So there’s always this withholding, which is what— You know, it’s the same in The Trial. He knows he’s accused but he can never find out what he’s accused of. And even when he comes to the door in front of the law, it’s open but he still can’t really get in. There’s that wonderful kind of double play of oppressiveness and invisibility that is always kind of somehow mediated through… Yeah, the law, technology, writing, seem to go very closely together. Another triangle.
Of British writers in the last fifty years, I mean, he is the great one, really. I mean he’s almost the only great one for me. You’d have to look at someone like Alex Trocchi to find a comparable intelligence, I think, in recent times. Or perhaps William Golding.
But Ballard is a genius. And when I was writing Remainder, I was thinking particularly of Crash, in which the hero like the hero of Remainder is obsessed with reenacting violent scenes, cockroaches. First in kind of football stadiums, sports stadiums, that he hires. And then on the highways themselves. And then ultimately without even demarcating a reenactment zone. I mean, he just does it in real space. In other words it’s real. So there’s this kind of escalation of violence, and repetition, and stylized violence, and kind of this feedback loop—it’s totally pornographic, you know, the way that the violence is reconsumed as a spectacle by the very people that produce it. So yeah, that kind of setup was just—I found it really compelling, and I think it’s very the same. I tried to use the same setup for Remainder.
I founded the International Necronautical Society ‚or INS, in 1999 with a manifesto that was launched at an art fair. The manifesto was a pretty close, almost pastiche of Marinetti’s first Futurist manifesto. But it was also packed with tropes and phrases kind of culled from writers like Derrida, and Blachot, and Heidegger, and so on. It was like a portmanteau. It was a stuffed…you know, Frankenstein of a kind of reassembled document.
I mean, I guess I’d been really interested in the avant-garde, the historical avant-garde. Figures like the Futurists, Surrealist, Dadaists—all the way up to the Situationists in the 50s and 60s. And the way that with that kind of model of the avant-garde you get an overlap of visual art, literature, philosophy, and, politics. They all kind of go together in this very kind of radical way.
But I was also kind of interested in— I mean, that was then. You know, by 1999 that’s all over. And I’d come across in the decade before that what the German critic Inke Arns post-historical avant-garde. So groups like NSK, Neue Slowenische Kunst, that emerged out of Slovenia and the 1990s and that had— You know. The chief philosopher was Slavoj Žižek. Their kind of propaganda unit was the band Eins— No, not Einstürzende Neubauten. Laibach. And later groups in London like the Triple‑A, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, who kind of had all this very kind of humorous but serious as well kind of…radical politics and artistic practices around space and stuff. And I was kinda quite interested in the idea of using a defunct model. The avant-garde is a defunct model, you know, but using that almost in the same way as Duchamp uses a broken bicycle wheel. I mean it’s only interesting to him once it’s broken and it’s not functioning as a bicycle wheel because it starts amassing anxieties about meaning.
So use the INS as a kind of— Also I’m really interested in corporate structures like— Which the historical avant-garde usually has, [indistinct] committees and subcommittees. For me this is like something out of Kafka, or Burroughs, Pynchon. You know, these networks, semi-occluded, that you never know where they end.
So I was just interested in kind of using that structure as a way to kind of encode and reply certain tropes and motifs from continental philosophy, for which death is a really central kind of figure, in the work of Derrida, Blanchot, Heidegger and so on. So that’s why the INS, you know, it’s central kind of thematic content was death. But in a way you know, I actually appointed philosophers and artists and political activists or whatever to roles in this committee and then expelled some and brought others in. And it becomes a kind of structure for both discourse but also kind of activity, you know. We’ve done various things. We’ve had radio units running. We infiltrated the BBC web site. I mean, once you have a structure like that it can do stuff that for all its blatant outdatedness can actually hopefully be quite contemporary.
Intertitle: The Poetic Haunt
The thing about literature is it’s impure, right. It’s always both parasitical on other discourses, and modes and itself kind of parasite-ridden by them. So, I mean, if you take the relationship with philosophy, Plato expels the poets from the republic. And with regrets. He loves the poets, will deck them in flowers, will give them the finest wine…and then kick them the fuck out because there is no room for poetry in this republic of knowledge. And so, poetry and by extension literature becomes the thing that haunts the house of knowledge from then on, and really erupts out of the closet with the writing of like Nietzsche and Derrida, you know, where it kind of takes central stage again.
But conversely, you know, a huge amount of lit— If you take a figure like Joyce, I mean, a huge amount of Joyce is…you know, Thomas Aquinas, through Nietzsche, through Bergson. I mean, that’s what I mean by the impurity of literature. I mean literature can never think of itself as a kind of self-contained units. So collaborations…with philosophers, for example, in which fiction becomes philosophy and vice versa, and in which both of these kind of become managed within the field of art…which is what I’ve been doing with the INS…I mean, these seem like the natural thing to do, in a way. I mean it kind of… Instead of trying to suppress that ambiguity and that impurity, it kind of brings it to the fore and lets it play out. In a productive way, I hope.
When I hear that term “ethics,” I think immediately of the writing of Emmanuel Levinas, the French philosopher who is a brilliant thinker, brilliant writer. And Levinas uses really interesting language when he talks about ethics. For him it seems to have nothing to do with a kind of a moral law that must be applied. But it’s totally tied in with violence and with trauma. And with a kind of…technological network structure. He says you know, we always have one finger caught in the machine. And this sense of kind of connectedness, you know. We’re always connected. We are never unplugged. We’re always in the network.
So in a way I mean, this seems a very…seems a kind of very modern way of thinking of ethics. And a very appropriate one. And of course Levinas himself you know, is a victim of technological modernity. I mean, most of his family were died in Auschwitz.
But at the same time I mean, I think you can’t really… It would be a mistake to kind of… To think that there was a pretechnological era. I mean, Western literature more or less begins with an account of a signal crossing space, right. That’s the first scene in Agamemnon, the first play of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Which really lays the groundwork for everything else. We get a signal, which is this beacon signal that’s been relayed from point to point to point around all of Greece that says “Troy has fallen.” I mean, I looked into this. It’s not some crappy little fire that people built on a hill. They had machines that signaled. It was almost like a prehistor— Well. Early version of Morse code.
So, the point is that already you know, ancient Greek space is steeped…you know, as is this room with all its wireless wifi. So it’s steeped in a realm of communication, of technological communication. And the message that that communication carries is one of violence, you know. There has been a huge seismic event. Troy is destroyed. And it heralds another whole cycle of violence. Agamemnon will come home and get murders, and so on and so on.
Intertitle: Wars of Law
Take Abu Ghraib, for example. Those amazing images that emerged a few years ago. When I saw those, I was reminded of this novel by Bernard Noël called Le Château de Cène, The Castle of Communion, that came out in 1969. And it’s a kind of—you know…almost obs—well, obscene, pornographic allegory of what was going on in Algeria at the time, what his own government was doing in Algeria. So in the Château de Cène there’s all these kind of scenes of domination, sadomasochism, rape, etc.
With the Abu Ghraib photos, you don’t need a Bernard Noël to do it. The soldiers themselves are kind of enacting those scenes. And you know, on the one hand there’s something absolutely repulsive and disgusting about it. And on the other hand, I find it almost kind of subversive that… Not that they do it, but that these pictures kind of emerge into the public realm. The kind of poetic…truth of the overall you know…project. The kind of poetic…truth of the overall you know…project…[chuckles]…the overall neoliberal military project that was going on at that time just suddenly erupts for all to see.
I’ve been rereading Sade recently, The 120 Days of Sodom, which I haven’t read since I was like 22 or something. And what really struck me…it was just a couple of weeks ago. What really struck me about it now is…well firstly the first sentence could have been written by Agamben, or in fact Naomi Klein, like yesterday. I mean, it says something like “It is in the state’s interest to maintain a condition of terror, so that it can suspend all democratic laws and get away with what it wants.” And then the second sentence says “And individuals and businesses that have a foot in the president’s office can do very well in times like this.” I’m mean…they could’ve just written “Cheney,” you know. It’s incredibly contemporary.
But what is amazing is that— There’s loads of amazing things about Sade. For example all of the events that take place in it are reenactments. That these perverts have set up this whole scene, this kind of prison situation, have people tell them stories that they then reenact and embellish sexually onto their prisoners. It’s very kind of Abu Ghraib.
But, what really struck me as I read it was that Sade’s heroes-slash-antiheroes, his libertine perverts, are very clear that what they’re doing is criminal. They go away. To Switzerland. [chuckles] They sequester themselves in an inaccessible castle. And they’re proud of the fact that what they’re doing is against the state, it’s against the law, it’s against order. Whereas now, almost identical scenes are being enacted, not against order but in the very name of order, of justice, of liberty, of freedom, by the state itself. It seems we’ve come that far that that total gap has been completely closed.
Intertitle: The Event
So 9/11 as an event— I mean if you take— If you understand “event” in the way that Alain Badiou, who is the kind of—the great contemporary thinker on “the event” uses it, then 9/11 wasn’t an event. Because as you suggest— I can’t take credit for this. As you’ve just said, it’s not a singularity that breaks with a given norm. It was exactly the opposite. It was almost a reenactment of a certain narrative that had been cached, and fantasized, and replayed in a million disaster movies. And I mean, there’s even a rap album that has the Twin Towers exploding on its cover. I mean it was so…embedded in the whole imagination, that in that sense it was not something new.
But in the Freudian sense it was a perfect model of an event, for that very reason, that it’s a kind of repeated iteration. There’s this great line in William Faulkner’s book Absalom, Absalom! where Quentin says, “Nothing ever happens once and is finished.” Happen is like ripples on a set of pools. And each pool is separate but it’s joined by a little umbilical water channel to the next pool, and the next one, and the next one, such that the same set of ripples go from communicating pool to communicating pool. And what these ripples are carrying is kind of the echo of a stone being dropped in a pool originally in some past that’s irretrievable. No one saw the stone being dropped. We just see the ripples, this kind of endless iteration and reiteration to infinity of um— So “event” has to be thought of as not a point in time but a kind of disperse, spread-out structure that is… Like the car crash for Ballard, it’s always happening.
And I suppose for something like 9/11, you can kind of trace this back to um…you know, way beyond modernity.Again, back to the Greeks. I mean, I remember quite soon after that beginning to read the Aeneid by Virgil. And Aeneas’ description of Troy’s fall to Dido is…it’s uncanny reading it after 2001. I mean, he talks about people jumping from the tops of burning buildings to their death just so that they wouldn’t burn, you know. It’s kind of… It seems that that catastrophe was so embedded in Western culture right from the off that it’s… You know, it’s almost like, again to riff of Freud, it’s almost like the return of the repressed. Didn’t Chomsky say of that, those weren’t aeroplanes, they were pigeons coming home to roost.
I mean I guess after—you know. For me, shortly after 9/11 I went to this conference on James Joyce that was in Trieste. And just outside Trieste is Duino, where Rilke wrote the elegies The Duino Elegies. And those begin with this famous line about “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror” Every angel is terrifying. “Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.” And I’d always thought of that—you know, again, before 9/11 I thought of that as some kind of romantic thing. You know, angels are terrifying, the sublime, this kinda Kantian…whatever, Wordsworth…stuff. And then suddenly, after 9/11, going to Duino, thinking about it then it just seemed to have a much more immediate political configuration. Terror is a political thing. Terror, terrorists, you know. And then, I guess the proposition that would follow from that would be well if every angel is terrifying, does that mean every that terrorist is angelic, somehow? I don’t know, but it was interesting reading Rilke after 9/11. Let’s put it—let’s leave it at that.