I Review Tom McCarthy’s Essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix”

Art, Books, Film, Literature, Reviews, Writers

Telephone Picture EM 3 — Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

In an interview published back in 2010 (coinciding roughly with the release of his excellent novel C), Tom McCarthy evaluated his work:

I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature. For me, that’s what literature’s always done. If Shakespeare finds a good speech in an older version of Macbeth or Pliny, he just rips it and mixes it. It’s like DJing.

McCarthy’s new essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix” explores the idea of artist as DJ, as remixer, as synthesizer. It’s a brief, fun read—28 pages on paper the publicity materials claim, but it’s only available as an etext, so its length is hard to measure in terms of pages. It took me less than an hour to read it on my Kindle Fire. Then I read it again. Although publisher Vintage kindly sent me a copy, I’d argue that it’s well worth the two bucks they’re asking.

“Transmission” is playful and discursive, as befits its subject. The essay is not nearly as pretentious as its subtitle (“How Literature Works”) might suggest. McCarthy riffs on a few subjects to illustrate his thesis: Kraftwerk, the Orpheus myth (and its many, many retellings and interpretations), Rilke, Alexander Graham Bell, “Blanchot, Barthes, or any other dubious French character whose names starts with B,” Ulysses, Kafka, Beckett, etc. But what is his thesis? What does he want? He tells us:

My aim here, in this essay, is not to tell you something, but to make you listen: not to me, nor Beckett and Kafka, but to a set of signals that have been repeating, pulsing, modulating in the airspace of the novel, poem, play—in their lines, between them and around them—since each of these forms began. I want to make you listen to them, in the hope not that they’ll deliver up some hidden and decisive message, but rather that they’ll help attune your ear to the very pitch and frequency of its own activity—in other words, that they’ll help attune your ear to the very pitch and frequency of its own activity—in other words, that they’ll enable you to listen in on listening itself.

McCarthy’s concern here is to point out that nothing is original, that all creation is necessarily an act of synthesis. To read a novel is to read through the novel, to read the novelist’s sources (or, to use McCarthy’s metaphor, to listen through). McCarthy’s insights here are hardly new, of course—Ecclesiastes 1:19 gives us the idea over 2000 years ago, and surely it’s just another transmitter passing on a signal. What makes “Transmission” such a pleasure is its frankness, its clarity. Unlike so much postmodern criticism, McCarthy doesn’t trip over jargon or take flights of fancy into obscure metaphor. And even when he does get a bit flighty, he manages to clarify so many ideas of basic deconstructive theory:

This is it, in a nutshell: how writing works. The scattering, the loss; the charge coming from somewhere else, some point forever beyond reach or even designation, across a space of longing; the surge; coherence that’s only made possible by incoherence; the receiving which is replay, repetition—backward, forward, inside out or upside down, it doesn’t matter. The twentieth century’s best novelist understood this perfectly. That’s why Ulysses’s Stephen Dedalus—a writer in a gestational state of permanent becoming—paces the beach at Sandymount mutating, through their modulating repetition, air- and wave-borne phrases he’s picked up from elsewhere, his own cheeks and jaw transformed into a rubbery receiver . . .

Amazingly, the name Derrida doesn’t show up in “Transmission,” even as McCarthy gives us such a clear outline of that philosopher’s major ideas, as in the above riff’s explication of différance and iterability (with twist of Lacanian lack to boot). Or here, where McCarthy deconstructs the notion of a stable self:

All writing is conceptual; it’s just that it’s usually founded on bad concepts. When an author tells you that they’re not beholden to any theory, what they usually mean is that their thinking and their work defaults, without even realizing it, to a narrow liberal humanism and its underlying—and always reactionary—notions of the (always “natural” and preexisting, rather than constructed self, that self’s command of language, language as vehicle for “expression,” and a whole host of fallacies so admirably debunked almost fifty years ago by the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.

So I read Derrida through McCarthy’s reading of Robbe-Grillet. This is all transmission, writing as remix, but also reading as remix.

I could go on, but I fear that I’ll simply start citing big chunks of McCarthy’s essay, which is supremely citable, wonderfully iterable. Recommended.

Death of the Author


“[O]nce I’m done with the thing, I’m basically dead, and probably the text’s dead: it becomes simply language, and language lives not just in but through the reader” — David Foster Wallace, quoted in Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace

In the quote above, DFW illustrates why, when writing at his best, he was able to transcend the cold irony and post-modern goofiness of forbears (and, to some extent, contemporaries) like DeLillo and Pynchon. Wallace understood language as a game, and understood that the game was cooperative. He knew that it wasn’t enough to be clever–readers need to care about that cleverness. If the author is dead, and the text is dead, then the language has to live on through voices, through perspectives, through a series of interior identifications: this is where DFW excelled and dazzled. The myriad voices that lard Infinite Jest testify the power of walking in another’s shoes and seeing through another pair of eyes–in caring for the other. This is the power of literature, and this is why Wallace was such a powerful writer. And this is why we’ll miss him so much.

Wallace’s work went past the post-modern (counter)tradition of meta-textuality and self-referentiality, and commented–sometimes with a painful awareness and acuity–on the emotional deadening produced by contemporary irony and consumerist culture. His characters weren’t just placeholders to be pushed around in the hopes of proving a point, but real, achieved voices who lived through the reader. DFW’s project was not to simply repeat the postmodern realization of the indecidability of textuality, but to work through that realization into a new realm of connection and meaning and identification with his readers despite a cold, ironic, and sometimes meaningless world. In both his groundbreaking fiction and his brilliant essays, DFW delivered what matters the most in any piece of writing–subjects and characters you care about (often despite yourself). Postmodernist thought declares there’s nothing outside the text, a supposition many contemporary authors explore and expound upon in chilly irony or silly wordplay. Even when he was negotiating problems of meaning, signification, and communication in the face of alienation, fragmentation, and despair, David Foster Wallace gave us fully-realized worlds populated with characters we could care about.

There are any number of reports out there right now that mischaracterize DFW as an author who hid behind wordplay and irony. Consider Guy Adams ridiculous lead in The Independent: “For a writer who elevated irony to an art form, and whose infinite jesting co-existed with an all-too-apparent dark side, it felt grimly appropriate that David Foster Wallace should have chosen suicide as the means by which to end his own life story.” Did it feel “grimly appropriate”? Why? What was “grimly appropriate,” about David Foster Wallace’s suicide, Guy? Adams reinforces both his ignorance of his subject as well as his lack of literary understanding with this tidbit: “For all his natural ability, and occasional brilliance, Wallace never lived-up to the fullness of his talent, or the haunting reach of his possibilities.” Adams’s dismissive-yet-inflated rhetoric is exactly the kind of verbal posturing that needs to be shouted down right now by those who’ve actually read Wallace and can testify that his brilliance was anything but “occasional.” And that, I guess, is my only real goal here. Adams is wrong. It’s not true that “Wallace never lived-up to the fullness of his talent”–that phrase doesn’t even mean anything. Who measured the fullness of Wallace’s talent? When did that measurement take place, and in what units was said-talent measured? The measure of DFW’s talent can only be assessed by actually reading his work, and that’s what you should do–especially if you’ve been putting it off. Our author may be dead, but he lives on in a language game played with his readers via the act of reading, and this is a game where everyone stands to win.

“Some Principles of Democracy and Deconstruction—American or Otherwise” by A. S. Kimball


“Some Principles of Democracy and Deconstruction—American or Otherwise” by Sam Kimball. Worth wrapping your head around.

1. Democracy and deconstruction name the namelessness of a we, the people in relation to this people’s unimaginable possibilities of collective self-identification to come.

2. For this reason democracy and deconstruction locate the we in a future that transcends any possible transcendence of time, and therefore that remains utterly contingent and extinguishable, able to be obliterated in an apocalypse of the name.

3. Democracy and deconstruction attempt to respond to a demand—untraceable to any face or mind, to any consciousness—for absolute justice.

4. To this end, and because “we are all heir, at least, to persons or events marked, in an essential, interior, ineffaceable fashion, by crimes against humanity” (Derrida, Of Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, 29), democracy and deconstruction demand of the citizen to come an attitude of radical forgiveness and hospitality.

5. To this same end, and for similar reasons, democracy and deconstruction also entail a radical affirmation—that is, they are ways of saying “Yes?” or “Who’s there?” in the absence of any determinate voicing.

6. This means that democracy and deconstruction respond to a call that comes from an unimaginable and indeterminate future.

7. For all these reasons as well as the fact that “all nation-states are born and found themselves in violence” (Of Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, 57), democracy and deconstruction are provisional names for an historically unrealized ideal.

8. Thus, democracy and deconstruction require an incessant work of critique.

9. Democracy and deconstruction are ways of working toward forms of community that must necessarily exceed, transgress, transcend, and therefore remark all political borders, most especially those that define the sovereignty of the nation-state.

10. The spirit of the spirit of democracy and deconstruction has no single emotional marker, cannot be contained within or encompassed by any single emotional apprehension, is not identifiable as an affective state.

11. Democracy and deconstruction are inseparable from the fictionalizing, virtualizing power of literature.