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. 

Intertitle: Kafka

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.

Intertitle: Ballard

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.

Intertitle: I.N.S.

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. 

Intertitle: Ethics

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.