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.
From Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:
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.
A passage from Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:
This is what all good writers are doing, and always have been. Here I’d part company even with Robbe-Grillet: there is nothing “new” about this. Shakespeare was remixing Ovid, Plutarch, Holinshed, not to mention the authors of the King Leirs and Hamlets already in circulation when he penned his versions. Cervantes was remixing Montalvo, Ariosto, Apuleius, and any number of picaresque authors—and doing this with such delirious selfconcsiousness that at one point he even makes the characters of Don Quixote pause to take stock of the library, the engine room behind their mad associate’s reenactments, perusing it as though it were some kind of source code—which it is. Pound was remixing Villon, Daniel, and Sordello; De Mailla, Marco Polo, and Malatesta; Jefferson, Adams, and Jackson, merging all these feed together as he wound them through his typewriter, splicing them in with fragments of newsprint, shards of radio transmissions—merging them yet in a manner that made no attempt to mask their fragmentary, collated character, to “naturalise” them. With the Cantos, he kept up this furious enterprise for five whole decades, ramping its intensity up and up until the overload destroyed him, blew his mind to pieces, leaving him to murmur, right toward the end: “I cannot make it cohere.”
A passage from Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix:”
It might be inferred, from what I’ve said, that any old remix will do. Not so: there are good and bad ones. Tristan Tzara cutting Shakespeare sonnets up and pulling their words from hats is an exercise in randomizing. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin mixing poems in with sliced-up pages of The New York Times is quite another matter: it is assiduous composition—composition understood in all its secondary nature: as reading, tracing, reconfiguring. Using the same technique, Gysin comes up with a few clumsy permutations along the lines of “Rub the Word Right Out . . . Word Right Rub the Out” and so on—whereas Burroughs generates such gorgeous sequences as:
Visit of memories. Only your dance and your voice house. On the suburban air improbable desertions . . . all harmonic pine for strife.
The great skies are open. Supreme bugle burning flesh children to mist.
Why does Burroughs conjure so much more richness from the same source material? Because (unlike the painter Gysin, whose skill lies primarily in the domain of images), he has uploaded the right verbal remix software. He has read and memorized his Dante, his Shakespeare, his Eliot—to such an extent that his activity as a composer consists of giving himself over to their cadences and echoes, their pulses, codas, loops, the better that these may work their way, through him, The New York Times and any other body thrown into the mix, into an audibility that, booming and echoing in the here-and-now, transforms all the mix’s elements, and time itself.
This is what all good writers are doing, and always have been.
If technology in general is at once a form both of self-extension and of amputation, then the branch of it that concerns itself with information and its relay—communication technology—is a true field-hospital operating -theater floor of hacked-off limbs, of bereaved bodies. A quick glance at the history of almost any comm.tech device will illustrate this perfectly.
Take the telephone: Alexander Bell, its inventor, grew up in the shadow of his father who ran a school for deaf-mutes and was continually inventing machines to substitute their powers of hearing and speaking. As a student, Alexander stole an ear from a morgue so that he could try to reproduce its inner workings mechanically; a few years later he brought home another defunct ear and, attached to it, the woman he’d marry, deaf like his mother. After his first brother died when his lungs gave out on him, he made a pact with the remaining one that if a second of them should die, the survivor would invent a device capable of receiving messages from the afterlife, should such a thing turn out to exist. The second brother did die, and Bell invented the telephone. He would probably have invented it anyway, and in fact remained a sceptic vis-a-vis the question of existence after death—but only because his brother never called. The desire for the call was there, wired into the very apparatus, haunting it.
From Tom McCarthy’s forthcoming essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix.”
A passage from Simon Critchley’s new collection of interviews and meditations, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying in which author Tom McCarthy (Critchley’s partner in the International Necronautical Society) talks about the question of an authentic, heroic self—
. . . in the heroic tradition in literature, which pits the self against death in a way that produces authenticity, you find a hero that runs into death like a fly slamming into an electric field, and which goes out in a tremendous spark of authentic apotheosis. There’s a lot about that, aesthetically, which is very seductive. However, we at the INS strongly reject that. Instead, we feel more seduced by the comic tradition in which the fly can’t even reach the electric field. It keeps tripping over its legs, or becomes distracted by something — dog shit, for example. So death in the comic tradition is not that of authentic self-mastery, but rather of a slippage; it’s about the inability to be oneself, and to become what one wants to be. And we think that that kind of tradition or logic is much more rich and fruitful.
At The Believer, you can read the entirety of “Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future’” by The International Necronautical Society (aka Simon Critchley and Tom McCarthy (although we’re pretty sure that the essay’s authorization code TMcC010910 indicates that McCarthy is its author)). Playful and provocative stuff. A sample–
5. The INS rejects the Enlightenment’s version of time: of time as progress, a line growing stronger and clearer as it runs from past to future. This version is tied into a narrative of transcendence: in the Hegelian system, of Aufhebung, in which thought and matter ascend to the realm of spirit as the projects of philosophy and art perfect themselves. Against this totalizing (we would say, totalitarian) idealist vision, we pit counter-Hegelians like Georges Bataille, who inverts this upward movement, miring spirit in the trough of base materialism. Or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who, hearing the moronic poet Russel claim that “art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences,” pictures Platonists crawling through Blake’s buttocks to eternity, and silently retorts: “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”
6. To phrase it in more directly political terms: the INS rejects the idea of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of dominant socioeconomic narratives of progress. As our Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley has recently argued, the neoliberal versions of capitalism and democracy present themselves as an inevitability, a destiny to whom the future belongs. We resist this ideology of the future, in the name of the sheer radical potentiality of the past, and of the way the past can shape the creative impulses and imaginative landscape of the present. The future of thinking is its past, a thinking which turns its back on the future.
Here are our favorite books published in 2010 (the ones that we read–we can’t read every book, you know).
A dark, elliptical treatise on the mundane and inescapable violence wrought by the Camorra crime syndicate in southern Italy.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned — Wells Tower (trade paperback)
Tower’s world is a neatly drawn parallel reality populated by down-on-their-luck protagonists who we always root for, despite our better judgment, even as they inadvertently destroy whatever vestiges of grace are bestowed upon them.
Kertész’s slim novella explores a storyteller’s inability to accurately and properly communicate spirit and truth against the backdrop of an oppressive Stalinist regime.
Shaw’s graphic novel is sardonically humorous in its psychoanalytic/post-apocalyptic visions. It’s a sweet and sour subversion of 1950’s comics and contemporary conformist groupthink politics. Witty and poignant, it advances its medium.
An unexpected historical romance from postmodern poster boy David Mitchell. Thousand Autumns is a big fat riff on storytelling and history and adventure–but mostly, Mitchell’s Shogunate-era Japan is a place worth getting lost in.
“I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature,” McCarthy said in an interview this year. “For me, that’s what literature’s always done.” C, our favorite novel of 2010, seems plugged into the past and the present, pointing to the future.
Wolf Hall — Hilary Mantel (trade paperback)
Who knew that we needed to hear the Tudor saga again? Who knew that Thomas Cromwell could be a good guy?
A mean, sad, hilarious novel that simultaneously eulogizes, valorizes, and mocks the American Dream.
Charles Burns does Tintin in William Burroughs’s Interzone. ‘Nuff said.
An epic compendium of, jeez, I don’t know, how do you define or explain what Davis does? Inspection, perception, mood, observation. Tales, fables, riffs, annotations, skits, jokes, japes, anecdotes, journals, thought experiments, epigrams, half-poems, and would-be aphorisms. Great stuff.
- “I think the historical thing is a red herring. I don’t see C as a historical novel. I see it as completely contemporary. It’s about media and our relation to media and to emerging new media and to networks.”
- “It comes straight from Freud. Trauma is the condition of our identity. Trauma is the most basic condition of our existence.”
- “It’s a dual trauma, Serge’s seduction by Sophie his sister and then the loss of the sister.”
- “The way I got the idea with the book was I had a long-standing fascination with this movie by Jean Cocteau, Orphée, his retelling of the Orpheus myth.”
- “Orpheus in this movie interfaces with the underworld via a radio and what he picks up are the voices of the dead poets.”
From Cocteau’s Orphée–
And, while we’re on reviews of C, I want to gripe about Michiko Kakutani’s negative review of the book at The New York Times. If you don’t like a book, fine. But if you’re a critic at an organ that purports to be the nation’s beacon of journalistic excellence, you need to practice better criticism than what Kakutani’s done here. I think it’s pretty much a given that a critic should judge a book on its own terms–in terms of what the author was trying to do. Instead, Kakutani faults McCarthy’s book for not living up to a standard she finds in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, of all things–
But unlike Mr. McEwan’s masterpiece “C” neither addresses larger questions about love and innocence and evil, nor unfolds into a searching examination of the consequences of art. Worse, “C” fails to engage the reader on the most basic level as a narrative or text.
Kakutani provides no real evidence for that second claim but I’ll let that alone for a moment, simply because I think she’s wrong, and that she doesn’t bother to back her subjective judgment reveals a rushed reading. What really bothers me though is this idea that C was supposed to address “larger questions about love and innocence and evil”–where did she get that idea? She tells us where she got it: a novel by Ian McEwan.
Here she is again dissing McCarthy for not meeting the Kakutani standard–
Although Mr. McCarthy overlays Serge’s story with lots of carefully manufactured symbols and leitmotifs, they prove to be more gratuitous than revealing.
Just what was the novel supposed to reveal to Kakutani? The same mysteries that McEwan plumbed in his earlier novel? Why, exactly? One of C’s greatest pleasures is its resistance to simple answers, to its willingness to leave mysteries unresolved (I believe this is what Keats meant by negative capability).
Kakutani devotes a few sentences to C’s dominant theme of emerging technology and communication–
As for the repeated references to radio transmissions and coded messages sent over the airwaves, they are apparently meant to signal the world’s entry into a new age of technology, and to underscore themes about the difficulties of communication and perception, and the elusive nature of reality. But while the many technology references also seem meant to remind the reader of Thomas Pynchon’s use of similar motifs in “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Mr. McCarthy’s reliance on them feels both derivative and contrived.
Notice how instead of talking about McCarthy’s novel she retreats to another novel? Why? Why does she assume that C is echoing Gravity’s Rainbow? This isn’t a rhetorical question–she doesn’t bother to tell us. She just uses Pynchon’s book to knock McCarthy’s, not to enlarge any analysis of it. That is the laziest form of criticism.
The New York Times did better by publishing a review of C by Jennifer Egan this weekend. Egan’s review is positive–and I loved C–but that’s not why the review redeems the Times’ standard. Egan’s review actually considers the book, discusses its language and themes, and tackles it on its own terms. When Egan does reference another book–Dickens’s David Copperfield–she does so in a way that enlarges a reader’s understanding of McCarthy’s project–not her own ideal of what a book should be.
Welcome to Biblioklept’s 777th Post Spectacular*
*Not guaranteed to be spectacular.
777 seems like a beautiful enough number to celebrate, and because we’re terribly lazy, let’s celebrate by sharing reviews of seven of our favorite novels that have been published since this blog started back in the hoary yesteryear of 2006. In (more or less) chronological order–
The Road — Cormac McCarthy – That ending gets me every time. The first ending, I mean, the real one, the one between the father and son, not the tacked on wish-fulfillment fantasy after it. Avoid the movie.
Tree of Smoke — Denis Johnson — Nobody knew we needed another novel about the Vietnam War and then Johnson went and showed us that we did. But it’s fair to say his book is about more than that; it’s an espionage thriller about the human soul.
2666 — Roberto Bolaño — How did he do it? Maybe it was because he was dying, his life-force transferred to the page. Words as viscera. God, the blood of the thing. 2666 is both the labyrinth and the minotaur.
Asterios Polyp — David Mazzucchelli — We laughed, we cried, and oh god that ending, right? Wait, you haven’t read Asterios Polyp yet? Is that because it’s a graphic novel, a, gasp, comic book? Go get it. Read it. Come back. We’ll wait.
C – Tom McCarthy — Too much has been made over whether McCarthy’s newest novel (out in the States next week) is modernist or Modernist or post-modernist or avant-garde or whatever–these are dreadfully boring arguments when stacked against the book itself, which is complex, rich, enriching, maddening.