Tom McCarthy helped co-found the International Necronautical Society, a makeshift, ragtag group of performance artists and philosophers that self-identify as “modern lovers of debris.” The tenants that define the group are hazy at best, but in McCarthy’s most recent novel, Satin Island, we get as legitimate an expansion on that small set of qualifiers as we can probably expect. The modern debris described in the book, although related to the black plastic bags and sewage drenched refuse of the past, is more accurately represented by the disastrous oil spills that stream out of busted tanker ships. The overly-comprehensive informational archives that compose the internet and its digital neighbourhoods are replete in useless figures, expired data and obsolete web pages. McCarthy suggests that, long before we drown in garbage, we’ll choke on the confining coordinates of technology’s great stinking compost heap.
McCarthy’s previous novel C (2010) was full of coded signals and demonstrated the author’s interest in the white noise that spans the gap between beacons of civilization on the radio dial. And in his study on the works of Hergé, Tintin and the Secret of Literature (2006), McCarthy wrote that “it is the transmissions you cannot hear that are the loaded, dangerous ones.” It is precisely this “below-radar altitude, this blind spot, this mute pocket” between spaces of meaning where literature, if it holds an ultimate truth, if there is a “secret either unexpressed or inexpressible,” then it is “in precisely this kind of space that we should look for it.” As if in response to the gauntlet he himself threw down Satin Island is a book obsessed with the invisible statistic forces that shape the ways in which our world functions. Although the characteristics of these powers are generally figured as computational: sets of binary systems that keep YouTube videos buffering and Twitter reams scrolling, they have a life outside of the bracketed environment of screens. The narrator, whom we know only as U., a cryptic glyph grafted onto the social and technological networks that he investigates, describes how diagrams and data seemed always “to dialogue with one another in a rich and esoteric language.” Sometimes he can even feel the underlying secrets of “the plan, formula, solution” that appears “moving in the ripples on the surface of a long-cold coffee cup or in the close-up choreography of dust-flecks jumping on an unwiped tabletop,” or even on the “fleshy sides of [his] own drooped eyelids.” U. believes that he can see an answer “not only to the problem with which [he is] currently grappling, but to it all.” He is gifted with the same revelatory vision that informs Thomas Pynchon’s writing, where, for example, in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), San Narciso is described as “less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts—census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, [and] shopping nuclei.” It is a grid-based understanding of the world where the dispositions enforced by unseen numbers determine everything.
U. is a corporate anthropologist. And while the ancestors of the same trade might have been sent to Papua New Guinea, he is deployed instead to a business where he serves as the “in-house ethnographer for a consultancy.” It’s the kind of left-of-center job title that you can imagine pulling in a paycheck at any number of Silicon Valley start-ups. In U.’s own words, in-house ethnographers “purvey cultural insight…unpick the fibre of a culture…its weft and warp.” This includes, but is not limited to, “the situations it throws up,” and “the beliefs that underpin and nourish it.” Once a given cultural climate has been analyzed down to the level of its fibre count, the company is then able to “introduce into the weave their own fine, silken thread.” As a case example we might look to the legend of the fake flag that rocked all of Europe, a tale that is all but canonized by the creatives at the company. Having been commissioned by the EU to “imagine what a concrete affirmation of a European communality might look like,” the company designed a flag, and “Photoshopped it into a bunch of pictures of the EC President giving a speech; finance ministers from member-states sitting round a table; even entrances to governmental buildings in a range of European capitals.” These images immediately incite a backlash in which the “conservative press denounced these bar-code ensigns,” and “called them illegitimate.” Conversely, progressives “adopted them,” and so “real ones started springing up.” As U. gloats of this surreptitious bit of cyber-opportunism he assures us that “No one stopped to ask if they were real.” And as a result “the facts, in this case, followed from the fiction. Fiction was what engendered them and held them in formation.”
It’s old news that in the era of late capitalism counter-culture impulses are routinely coopted by larger market forces. In this case the revolution doesn’t eat its children, it sells them their own slogans back to them in SuperBowl ads. U. brags of his ability to apply Alain Badiou’s notion of the rip to “to tears worn in jeans,” which he describes as the “birth-scars of their wearer’s singularity, testaments to the individual’s break with general history, to the successful institution of a personal time.” Our corporate anthropologist has built his career on “feeding vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine.”
Where U. changes the familiar dynamic is that he doesn’t rely exclusively on the creativity of those that he attempts to manipulate. He applies an ingenuity long-attributed to conceptual art in order to cleverly reframe the narrative of cultural environments. As he says: “my job was to put meaning in the world, not take it from it.” In Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (2014), Keller Easterling describes the not quite as sexy new world of activism as being less about being able not to “face off against every weed in the field but rather, unannounced, alter the chemistry of the soil.” Far from radical sea changes, it is the power to cause a “shift in disposition,” in the way we understand how the world is organized on a granular level that is most capable of sponsoring an “ongoing reconditioning or revolutionizing of a spatio-political climate.” No activist, U. is nonetheless active in rewriting the conditions of society through his designs, employing these same strategies not to enact political convictions but instead to forward his company’s undisclosed agenda.
The philosopher Simon Critchley wrote that “McCarthy’s fiction and nonfiction aim to skewer an ideology of authenticity that is fed and watered by a certain humanist conception of literature.” U. acts as this skewer’s pointed tip. If a contemporary writer of fiction can be considered anemically tapped of cultural capital, U.’s creativity and ability to mobilize narratives in the pursuit of economic advantage seems to be supplanting the author’s profession. If U. had “to sum up, in a word, what we (the Company, that is) essentially do” that word would be “fiction.” In fact his main project is “The Great Report,” which will act as The Book, “The First and Last Word on our age,” something akin to Ulysses for a world more hung up on BuzzFeed than Bloomsday. In an article for the Guardian published in March, McCarthy himself disturbed the sanctified literary space of one of his heroes:
If there is an individual alive in 2015 with the genius and vision of James Joyce, they’re probably working for Google, and if there isn’t, it doesn’t matter since the operations of that genius and vision are being developed and performed collectively by operators on the payroll of that company, or of one like it.
McCarthy ironically acknowledges the displacement of his profession while also casting aspersions on narrative’s new flag-bearers.
In conceiving of a conference presentation to his peers, U. imagines an unorthodox and frightening reading of oil spills. In his framing the ocean’s surface is “made sharper, more momentous: it is amplified” by the pollutants. Animals become “instant martyrs” that are “infused with all the pathos and nobility of tragic heroes.” These victims owe a debt of gratitude to whatever “drunk ship’s captain, oversightful engineer or negligent safety officer” allowed the disaster to occur. Whoever’s incompetence we can credit for the spillage is the “true environmentalist: nature’s more honest intermediary, its loyaler servant.” Only by way of oil’s inky stain are nature’s permutations “augmented, transformed into monumental versions of themselves.” After all “what is oil but nature?” Nothing more than “organic compounds…broken down and concentrated by the planet’s very crust.”
If U. is fiction’s contemporary virtuoso, McCarthy invites us to question not only the ethical implications of a storyteller whose most explicit goal is to rewrite bad press, the author also insists that we examine the conditions that have fostered such a talent. Meeting with a colleague at a museum in Frankfurt, U. is invited into a storage room that looks like “the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where they stash the holy relic in a box exactly like all the other boxes in some warehouse that just stretches to infinity.” This environment reflects a dated imperative to “Write Everything Down.” As an anthropologist you previously had to gather all possible evidence because “a hammer or a pair of scissors might tell you as much about a culture as a sacred fetish.” What U. understands is that “now, it is all written down. There’s hardly an instant of our lives that isn’t documented” by street cameras, cellular GPS or tracked visits to websites. In this environment “[n]othing ever goes away.” It is all recorded by an indifferent system “that had given rise to itself, moved by itself and would perpetuate itself: some auto-alphaing and auto-omegating script.” In the end Satin Island’s true terror does not arise from the idea that U. could be capable of “providing faulty data, an intervention so mouse-like at the point-of-entry,” which “might engender, three or so steps down the chain, a sewer-monster…that, Godzilla-like, would rise up and smash everything.” No, the darker implications of this novel are that even U. is incapable of disturbing the systems at work in the world. We are, all of us, incidental to a larger structure that proceeds uncaringly with or without our consent. Ghosts in the machine, we slog through the inundating spillage of the information age.