Tom McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
Writing the Malaise
Incomprehensible, except when read as a footnote to Remainder. Then, it becomes an author’s expression of his own struggle with feelings of inadequacy in an (academic-literary) milieu dominated by cults of personality.
I was looking forward to reading this book. I loved Remainder (Paris: Metronome Press, 2005). It’s probably been ten years since I’ve read that book, but it has stayed with me. With Remainder still in the back of my mind, Satin Island ended up feeling like a massive disappointment. It’s nothing like Remainder. At least, at first glance.
Something else that adds to the sense of disappointment is the way that McCarthy seemed to frame the book prior to its release. For example, in an interview with The Guardian, he says it is a book about “pollution”, but “in a good way”. A book that, as the acknowledgements section states: “gestated” while “projecting images of oil spills onto huge white walls and gazing at them for days on end”. Knowing McCarthy’s thematic interests, and in particular his interest in 20th Century Continental Philosophy, I expected this book to focus more heavily on this central image of oil, and its potential associating meanings (concepts of pollution, auto-immunity, marginal phenomena, etc., etc.).
There are a few sections that do explore the theme of oil, and they seem to be the most important of the book (given the meaning of the book’s title), but they sit amongst several other ‘strands’ that appear to have nothing to do with the question. Furthermore, the main ‘discourse’ on oil occurs in a scene where the protagonist, U, imagines giving a presentation to an academic audience. The scene is exaggerated and ironic. It mocks the act of disseminating knowledge in an academic forum by presenting it as an exercise in personality and individualism. As insightful as the actual descriptions of oil-spills in this scene are, its framing hints that this book is actually about something else. If it is not about oil-spills, then, what is it about?
There is no meaningful (in the sense of in any way interesting) structure to the book. The three primary strands that are operational on the plot are: the phenomena of oil spills (particularly the anthropological-materialistic significance of them), a parachutist’s unexplained death, and the main character’s casual sexual relationship with a woman named Madison.
These strands are loosely woven together by the protagonist’s quest to produce a ‘grand report’ - an anthropological study that would map the entirety of contemporary culture.
What became clear by the end of the book is that it is most interesting when placed alongside Remainder, as a kind of limping addendum to the majesty of that tale. Remainder is a relentless look at projects - their mechanics, their joy and terror. Satin Island can also be read as being chiefly concerned with the phenomenon of projects, but this time from the no less important standpoint of something like the melancholy of projects. Oil spills and pollution become, not a complementary concept to that of a remainder or residue, but the sign of an encroaching melancholy or depression arriving from within and preventing the possibility of meaningful projects at all. In this sense, the book, through its own failure, manages somehow to express its central idea.
I suggest that the two key terms for understanding both Remainder and Satin Island are failure and matter. These terms shouldn’t be controversial for someone familiar with McCarthy’s work. The interesting thing about Satin Island is how the meaning of these terms shifts.
Remainder dramatizes what McCarthy himself calls “failed transcendence”. The protagonist’s obsession with perfection, seemingly to be achieved through ritualistic repetition, is persistently thwarted by matter. The desire to attain a perfect or transcendent choreography is one engine of the story. But, an engine is meaningless without something to act upon, without some friction. In Remainder the friction is produced by the machine itself, by its remainder. The remainder, in turn, becomes a second engine which propels the first into a new phase, a new attempt at reconfiguration, and on and on the cycle goes.
In short, failure is the engine of progression. So far, there is nothing too novel about this idea. However, each successive failure provokes reflection, revisions, and, most importantly, expansions. This is what is so beautiful about the story. In contrast to say, Waiting for Godot, another text about repetition and failure-as-engine, the successive attempts at transcendence in Remainder continually expand in scale and scope. This representation of the phenomena of repetition seems more accurate and interesting. After all, if the cause of failure or break-down is the failure to account for something (a remainder), then, the logical step is to expand the set of variables, to reach out further in the hopes of incorporating, expecting, those missing pieces that tripped us up.
Most importantly of all, though, is that no matter how wide the horizon grows, how many variables are counted, how far into the future we plan, there remains an essential blindness to that fact that the counting, planning, predicting, and so on, are the very activities producing the remainder. Or, in other words, even though the relation between a desiring-machine (the protagonist) and matter (the remainder) is autopoietic and produces novelty and expansion, it remains incapable of self-reflection. Or, self-reflection in a very specific sense. Because, of course, a kind of self-reflection occurs with each failure - the system learns what it did wrong and what not to do again - but it is incapable on reflecting on its own impossibility, on its own otherwiseness, in the Levinasian sense.
That is not to say that this, second, kind of self-reflection would produce a more ‘productive’ or ‘successful’ result. On the contrary, this kind of self-reflection can lead to paralysis and melancholy. This is what we get in Satin Island.
If Remainder dramatizes failure as a kind of engine, Satin Island dramatizes it as a spectre. The possibility of failure haunts and paralyses the protagonist throughout the book. Remainder is beautifully modernist in spirit, Satin Island is wallowing and existential. The protagonist of Remainder is a classic man-without-qualities, while the protagonist of Satin Island is narcissistic, egotistical, pathetic. Remainder is about the momentum and dynamics of projects, Satin Island is about the inability to begin projects.
Both, in their own way, touch on questions of modern technology. Both are concerned with questions of systems and their effects. Remainder, as an expression of iteration and counting, portrays an ideal (albeit flawed - with the flaws as part of the ideal) technological machine. The protagonist is almost a cipher for a neural network, each time his program runs he can do more and account for more. And, like a neural network, he is incapable (and unconcerned with) directing this capacity toward any kind of internally-defined ’end’, be it humanistic or otherwise. Satin Island, on the other hand, portrays the contemporary subject of such a vast technological system or network - fragile, ego-laden, procrastinatory. All that U is concerned with are ends and, in this case, consideration of ends is what paralyses the subject. The ends being considered are primarily narcissistic - fame, recognition, admiration. U only wants to work in order to achieve the same lofty status as Levi Strauss or Deleuze. Yet, he believes this is impossible due to the shift in reality produced by the capability of modern technologies - in particular, their capability to record and count. He laments that we (the contemporary ‘we’) are not even afforded the ‘struggle’ of being ‘slaves’ to technology:
The truly terrifying thought wasn’t that the Great Report might be un-writable, but—quite the opposite—that it had already been written. Not by a person, nor even by some nefarious cabal, but simply by a neutral and indifferent binary system that had given rise to itself, moved by itself and would perpetuate itself: some auto-alphaing and auto-omegating script—that that’s what it was. And that we, far from being its authors, or its operators, or even its slaves (for slaves are agents who can harbour hopes, however faint, that one day a Moses or a Spartacus will set them free), were no more than actions and commands within its key-chains.
The narrator of Remainder, due to his accident, was estranged and detached from the world around him. Here, it is the opposite. U is fully integrated into the world, not only through his technological devices, but, more importantly, through his ego, through the gaze of others (with the ‘others’ for U being primarily academic audiences it seems). He imagines, and fetishizes, a way out, a return to a primal/original state that is represented by oil and pollution (and other ‘remainders’, like the 5th borough of New York). In this mythical place, represented by the chemical properties of oil, oneness and connectivity is not defined in a binary or countable way, as it is in U’s technologically-conditioned world, instead it is defined simply as negation - negation of everything. In the case of oil-spills, the dynamics and patterns that so fascinate U are produced simply by its fundamental opposition to water. Oil has no fixed, identifiable ‘place’ to be (it is not ‘countable’ nor ‘accountable’ in the same way as variables in a gigantic database are, or as U himself, an academic, is), it simply moves to negate being in the same place as water. Because of this it can spread anywhere and produce endless variations on itself. This freedom, this ‘outsideness’, of oil-spills is what U wishes he could attain.
What are we to make of this quest? Ultimately, as I mentioned at the outset, U’s, and perhaps McCarthy’s, initial fascination with oil as an outside phenomena, an mystical origin, gives way to parody and melancholy. By the end of the book, oil, ‘Satin Island’, pollution, and so on, are transformed into a grotesque side-show. Are U’s final steps, away from his destination, supposed to make us condemn or admire him? Is this U retreating from his ego-fetishizations of ‘origin’, or is he retreating more into himself, learning to stop worrying and love the bomb?
This book, perhaps, presents a more accurate reflection of the contemporary persona under technology than Remainder. Remainder, in a sense, plays with the classic ‘fears’ about how technology will transform us into unthinking ‘cogs’ - the narrator is devoid of personality, he becomes simply a script for executing operations that he doesn’t really understand or care about. But, in contemporary practices is that really how we behave with technology? As Remainder shows, this would actually be a very interesting way of interacting with technology - taking it on its terms, burrowing deeper into the logics of the machine. Instead, today we witness the opposite - a rise of ego, a rise of the need to be seen more, to escape more, to be loved more, etc., etc.
All these are perhaps symptoms of what both Peter-Paul Verbeek and Luciano Floridi (and probably many others) have called a “fourth blow to human consciousness”. Following Freud’s analysis of the previous three blows - Copernicus’ proof that we are not the centre of the universe, Darwin’s that we are not the centre of our environments, and Freud’s that we are not the centre of our conscious life - technology represents a ‘fourth blow’ that reveals how we are no longer the centre of our actions. Instead, we outsource decisions, processes, entire chains of actions to machines and software. In this sense, we no longer have a ‘place’ in the world - we are not the centre of the universe (not divine), not the centre of the natural world (not an ’exceptional’ species), we are not the centre of our thoughts (not ‘masters’ of thinking - slaves to unconscious drives), nor are we the centre of global decision-making and patterns of action (not ‘chief’ organisers of the planet). So, then, what are we? What is our purpose? Why even study or reflect upon ourselves when machines are already doing the task much better than we ever could? This is the impasse that U reaches. His solution - return to the city.
Finally, one of the most depressing and deflating aspects of U’s choice to never actually complete the project is perhaps Madison’s influence. Her story, about the failure of a protest and the sheer absurdity and unpredictability of the system that they are fighting against, is the last thing we hear before U decides not to go to Satin Island after all.
As I read it, if Satin Island is saying anything, it is saying that, today, we are more closely aligned with U than with the protagonist of Remainder. That is, the modernist and progressive impulses from the 20th Century have given way to a seeping melancholy and narcissistic paralysis. Even though McCarthy claimed the book was about pollution “in a good way”, it’s difficult to see what is interesting about this ‘way’ from the book. Are we supposed to find the scene with Madison performing strange choreography outside the protest movement interesting? Here, her movements mirror the movements of oil and pollution, they are aimless and unaccountable. Her actions are mysteriously guided, haunted by children’s yells, directed by radio technologies, semi-perverse - as ambiguous as oil spills. These movements are placed in contrast to the famous May ‘68 slogan mentioned earlier in the book - “beneath the paving stones - the beach!” After mentioning these protests, U has a dream about tarmac and its resemblance to oil spills:
This coat was unrolling as I glided forward: unrolling more and more, decking the boulevards and avenues and alleyways in soft, black oblivion.
This motif, of a blackness ‘spreading’ (the oil is also compared to toffee) acts as the image of a seeping melancholia, a hole silently opening beneath the fabric of reality. This quote continues:
Occasionally, as I passed such-and-such a spot, I’d be made half-aware that some historical event, some revolutionary episode, had taken place just there-but even as the knowledge flashed up it was extinguished, buried beneath the tarmac.
In the end, U chooses the paving stones, the endless networks of black, oily tarmac, in favour of the act of rebellion, or any act at all. Are we, too, condemned to this free-floating, aimless dance? And are we condemned to this dance with the sense that a rip-cord is always available to us, to pull when we need a safety net (only to find that it has been mysteriously sabotaged)?