A Great Book for a PresentTense Anthropologist

A Great Book for a PresentTense Anthropologist

Thu 10 May

Tom McCarthy. Satin Island (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015). ISBN 9780224099349. 173 pp. £12.99

Once upon a time, the 1960s, an intellectual movement called Structuralism emerged in France. Its leading lights were Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette and Tzvetan Todorov. From France it spread to the UK, the US and elsewhere, initially in Literature (above all English) departments, and then more widely, seeping out steadily if slowly, erratically and unevenly into the larger culture. Structuralism had a number of different aspects that were crucial to it, but one above all seemed central. After structuralism, one could no longer easily suppose that representations matched reality (and vice versa); or rather, one became acutely aware that representations were only representations, that there was no ideal, perfect or automatic correspondence between them and the world they sought to represent. The idea, the image was never simply mappable on to the reality it proposed to capture. Representations were, precisely, structured; structured, furthermore, according to autonomous rules (or, as some called them, codes, or conventions) that one could never be certain were essential or intrinsic to the real itself. At this point, culture divided from nature, subject from object, human projects from the world encompassing them. For that reason, there could be, it seemed, no firm epistemological ground.

To many, if not all, Structuralism went together with Ideologiekritik as proposed or practised from Marx and Engels to Lukács, Adorno and well beyond, and it was as Ideologiekritik that it to a large extent developed. Ideologiekritik cut into the rhetoric of a “dominant ideology” ― effectively, that of Capital ― in order to expose the ruses whereby it masqueraded as general or universal truth, gave itself out as the ungainsayable or natural order of things, legitimized the discourses of power and privilege as though they were God-given, unchallengeable, immutable. Structuralism provided Ideologiekritik with a formidable new string to its bow, in that, firstly, it had scientific pretensions, and with good reason, since it was rooted in the science of linguistics, and, secondly, in that its finest and most influential practitioners were largely literary critics, sophisticated analysts and unmaskers of rhetoric, unusually sensitive to its procedures. The Structuralist turn therefore became more and more a political turn, though, as with so many exercises in academic theory, its consequences as such were far more evident in the academy and, increasingly, culture than they were in political praxis. All the same, Structuralism encouraged a scepticism about how far we can ever claim properly to know and accurately to picture the world outside us that seemed destined to last.

But Ideologiekritik can only fully function, perhaps only make complete sense if there is somewhere outside the ideology in question from which one can proceed with one’s critique. If we are to assert that a given ideology has only a relative rather than an absolute purchase, it has to exist in relation to a material alternative. One can of course continue to protest that the ideology in question is not the whole story, but the protest becomes theoretical or notional; there is no evidence to bear it out. Structuralism appeared in a period when an alternative existed. Not, it goes without saying, that “really existing socialism” as established in the Soviet bloc had any appeal or moral legitimacy, or that it could conceivably seem to indicate either. The point was rather the sheer fact of its existence at all. For it left a space, in the West above all, for the political imagination (western European socialists could at least dream of the advent of a more authentic socialism), for the possibility of thinking otherwise. It set Capital in a certain proportion, however unconvincing the material embodiment of the other cause, and the setting in proportion of Capital meant that things always came to people as ideology, as structured. A conflict between ideologies necessarily offers a fulcrum for questions. But, when Margaret Thatcher announced that there was no alternative to Capital, history duly bore her out. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism and the Cold War, Capital triumphed and the fulcrum disappeared. In effect, we heard the melancholy death knoll of a longstanding modern promise of radical progress.

But then something rather astonishing happened, something one might almost think of as a kind of madness, something at which we still startle and from which we are still reeling. Ideologiekritik began to look superfluous to requirements, and waned, as did Structuralism, which retreated into specialized academic discourses, like narrative theory. But the great Structuralist premise, that there is no clip-on relationship between, on the one hand, the image and the structure or system to which it belongs and which gives it meaning and, on the other, the real, did not. There was rather a new understanding of the implications or consequences of that premise. Structures were no longer inhibited by their final lack of grip. It seemed rather to license their production and, indeed, proliferation. If reality does not root, confirm or endstop the system or systems, if they are bound to float free of the real, why should they not multiply indefinitely, in carelessness of it? Why should there not be an infinity of indifferent systems? One corollary of that recognition, if at a certain remove, is what we are now calling a post-truth culture, where everyone’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s, no one really knows or can have the final say, and one of the most commonplace words is “like” (what I say may be, like, partly right, but I wouldn’t, like, go to the stake for it; my representation is, like, not reality). This, or somewhere like it, is actually where we are right now. It is in this respect, rather than the more usual academic ones, that we can say we live in a “poststructuralist” culture.    

As in any thumbnail sketch, there are of course some major and drastic simplifications in the historical story I have just told. For example, we can take the opening up of the gap between representation and the real a long way further back, to the emergence of modernism, the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, and many other features of early to mid-twentieth century thought and culture. Well before that, too: Schopenhauer’s account of representation, for instance, quite precisely delimits its scope. Indeed, philosophically, the founding delimitation is doubtless Kantian, the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon, the thing in itself, and the subjective perception of it. If we forget philosophy and turn to literature, we can go still further back, to Diderot, Sterne, Cervantes…. But all the same, my story contains the rudiments of a substantial truth. It also serves as a point of entry into the novels of Tom McCarthy. If my account of three phases (structuralist, critical-structuralist and poststructuralist) is at all right, then, by now, McCarthy can claim to be the British novelist par excellence of the third, poststructuralist phase, in the very specific sense I have just given to poststructuralism. This is hardly surprising, since McCarthy knows a great deal about modern and contemporary French thought. It is on such a basis that we can unlock the novel that is Satin Island.

This is most obviously the case in that its protagonist, U, works as an anthropologist, which these days means being “the in-house ethnographer for a consultancy” (p. 13). He susses out the narratives, the understanding of “ethnographic logic” that, he tells us, corporations and other organizations need, and advises them accordingly (p. 32). In U’s words, contemporary ethnographers “unpick the fibre of a culture (ours), its weft and warp―the situations it throws up, the beliefs that underpin and nourish it―and let a client in on how they can best get traction on this fibre” (p. 21; savour “get traction”. McCarthy has an expert feeling for the clichés and buzzwords, the dead weight of corporate language, and a shrewd sense of how it has affected us all). U presents his work as an orientation away from the dying world of the academy ― “Forget universities!” says U’s boss, Peyman. “They’ve become businesses―and not even good ones” (p. 57) ― to the brave new world of corporate enterprise. In McCarthy’s phrase, U is a point of conflux at which “the tributaries of left-field thought run into the Amazon of new-corporate culture” (p. 177). His great hero is, precisely, a structuralist, Lévi-Strauss, but a structuralist whom he has, in one sense, seen through. Lévi-Strauss dreamt of a structural understanding of “systems lying behind not just the single tribe but also the larger one of all humanity” (p. 29). However, there is “a ‘double-bind’ to which all anthropologists, and anthropology itself, are, by their very nature, prey: the ‘purity’ they crave is no more than a state in which all frames of comprehension, of interpretation and analysis, are lacking” (p. 18). In his very appearance, the anthropologist annihilates the objective status of the object to which he pays attention. The observer affects the observed; which means that, from that point on, anthropology can deal only in a recession of surrogates.

This partly means that there is no past to know any more. McCarthy exactly grasps the logic of contemporary presentism, our culture’s more or less voluntary and conscious historical confinement within the temporal horizons of its epoch and its forms of discourse and knowledge, its increasingly widespread conviction that no other culture has mattered or can matter as it does, or rather, that no other culture can matter to it more than it does, that it alone really speaks to itself, tells itself about itself, that there is no higher perspective according to which we might see what we “really are”. He knows, too, that this brings with it the possibility of what Quentin Meillassoux nicely calls a generalized “communal solipsism”. Hence U’s pet theory is, precisely, his (exquisitely baptized) Present-Tense AnthropologyTM. To be an anthropologist of the contemporary is to out-manoeuvre the double-bind, since the anthropologist knowingly enters an indeterminate field where observer now blends with observed, and one is left only with “a constant shifting of identities, a blurring of positions and perspectives…a kaleidoscope of masquerades, roles, general make-believe” (p. 23). Translated into metaphor, U’s principal concern, the Koob Sassen project, is endlessly describable, whether as hovering spaceship, a rabbit warren or pond lilies. The comically random images suggest a comically futile truth. 

According to a poststructuralist logic (in my sense), people continue to need “foundation myths, some imprint of year zero, a bolt that secures the scaffolding that in turn holds fast the entire structure of reality” (p. 3). But everyone, or, at least, every group to their own myth: it is this very drive that lies behind the prolific emergence of systems. Given the “kaleidoscope”, and the fact that we cannot be sure whether we are extracting meaning from the world or actually introducing it, systems blossom and multiply indefinitely. From his first novel, Remainder, McCarthy has been fascinated by this very contemporary development. His novels abound in localized or specific forms, patterns, shapes and structures, like the salt on vibrating Chladni plates that arranges itself into “intricate designs…geometric and symmetrical and so generally perfect that they seemed to betray a universal structure lurking beneath nature’s surface” (p. 15). It is forms and systems that take priority in his novels, not people. People are functions of systems, aid and abet them, or, like U, breed systems of their own, or those subspecies or secondary features of systems, sets, groups, collections, clusters, tables, collages, sequences, networks, nodes and relays. U is very much concerned with files, dossiers, means of bunching and arranging things, techniques of extrapolation and cross-mapping. The Present-Tense Anthropologist is “not interested in singularities, but in generics” (p. 34). Thus he groups instances of anything that takes his fancy, from buffering to oil spills to parachutes failing to open. Where U is concerned, “it’s generic episodes and phenomena that stand out as significant, not singular ones” (p. 59). To which one might add that, in McCarthy’s world, since the possibilities of connection are limitless ― “who’s to say what is, or might turn out to be, related to what else?” (p. 34) ― whilst singularities are rare, probably even inexistent, genera are everywhere and infinite.

One might be tempted at this point to see McCarthy as exposing the cultural superstructure of contemporary neoliberalism in Marxist Professor of Anthropology David Harvey’s account of it. But for Harvey this superstructure functions in the interests of an elite class, the global plutocracy, and is the product of their machinations. There is nothing in Satin Island that suggests that McCarthy does not share U’s incredulity: “what shady interest group, what nefarious―if inspired―alliance of the influential and the manipulative” could possibly have engineered this set-up and be responsible for it? “That’s just the way it is”¸ says U (p. 43). This, in fact, is a very precisely contemporary assertion. As Luc Boltanski has observed, after the financial meltdown of 2008, “this is all there is” became a neoliberal mantra. Nonetheless, McCarthy is little given to Harvey’s kind of Marxist blame-game (or his Marxist positivity). For U, “his Great Report…has 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” (p. 123). Alternatively, given his references to contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou, one might suppose, at least fleetingly, that McCarthy has set out to produce a fictional embodiment of Badiou’s mathematical ontology, founded on set theory, with its evocation of a banal, actual infinity, sets upon sets, multiplicities upon multiplicities, infinities upon infinities proceeding towards an indefinite horizon. But the culture that Satin Island evokes is so historically specific that, whilst U may be prepared to think in terms of a truth of Being, there is no obvious indication that McCarthy does. If one wants a McCarthy tempted in that direction, one should rather turn to his previous novel, C.

No, for a theoretical frame for understanding McCarthy, or at least Satin Island, the thinker to go to, I’d suggest, is Niklas Luhmann. Luhmann is a weird, unamenable and anti-humanistic radical, rather as I take McCarthy to be, and one who offers a drastic redescription of society, in that, on the one hand, he seriously deplores where we are right now ― what we call democracy is simply an alibi for the smooth functioning of a certain kind of machine, one which works partly to blot out a world of “suffering beyond description”; we have no idea as to what democracy might really mean ― and, on the other, he thinks we are caught up in this society willy-nilly. In other words, unlike Harvey, he is deeply distrustful of any final attribution to agency. Luhmann claims that his is one of the great insults to human vanity, following Copernicus’s, Darwin’s and Freud’s. For Luhmann, it is systems and their sub-systems, not individuals, that operate, communicate, provide the environment for one another. Systems and sub-systems ― sub-systems are important; there are always multiple and simultaneous social realities ― are not steerable (the old left fantasy). They are not rational, conscious or controllable. There is systemic evolution, but it is autopoetic, self-generative, the paradigm being biological. Everything is contingent, extremely unlikely: “that all social phenomena experienced today exist is even more unlikely than my personal existence, which was against all odds”.  This goes for justice, too. Any emergence of justice or the right would be a Kontingenzformel, a contingency formula. But certain forms of extreme unlikelihood have come to pass and then been difficult to dislodge. Justice, as it happens, has not been one of them.       

Like Luhmann, McCarthy breaks with anthropocentric and humanist views of social phenomena. Like Luhmann, he seems to have no interest in the tradition of engagement, the notion that thought (or art) can intervene to produce political, social or moral change (Kant, Hegel, Marx, Sartre). But, like Luhmann, he keeps a knowledge of the Kontingenzformel, the contingency of any given world, in mind, this being the McCarthy who reminds us, rightly, that “neuroscience, genomics, bio-informatics” are just “concepts currently enjoying their moment in the sun” (p. 93). In his earlier novels, awareness of the Kontingenzformel largely manifested itself as a recognition of possible glitches in systems, and this continues in Satin Island. But here it has more various effects. McCarthy has never seemed like a satirist, though there were occasions when one wished he did, notably in his second novel, Men in Space, about the art world, which seemed to beg for some of the acrid laughter of Aldous Huxley’s Point Counterpoint or Wyndham Lewis’s Apes of God  ― “Do you actually rate these people?”, one kept on wanting to ask. But Satin Island has its moments of satirical distance, as when U informs us that he “recycled [Badiou’s] notion of a rip, a sudden temporal rupture, and applied it, naturally, to tears worn in jeans”; or when he twists a passage in Lévi-Strauss so that it gives him special help in conning people (pp. 30-1, p. 81); or when he presently himself, hilariously, as a demented Mallarméan with a project for the Great Book. Indeed, in Satin Island, McCarthy has flashes of the manner of some of the great literary satirists, gripped and fascinated by if not half in love with the target of his ridicule. This is most definitely not to say, however, that the novel as a whole functions as a satire. McCarthy shows a (very contemporary) reluctance to espouse the elevation of the satirist, his or her conviction of an imposing alternative. The perspective which might found a particular kind of judgement is almost totally absent from his work. The satirical touches in Satin Island rather serve as both a function and an index of the Kontingenzformel in itself.

As satire appears in traces in Satin Island, so too ― and this seems to me to be new in McCarthy’s work ― does politics. A politics of traces: certainly, on the one hand, McCarthy is hard-headed. He understands the contemporary implosion of modernity for what it is, with U “feeding vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly” (p. 31). One fancies that McCarthy coincides with U when he says, again rightly, that modernity itself “is no more than a credo in the process of becoming ‘dated’” (p. 93; think of Blair’s “modernity”). His account (via Madison) of the fate of the demonstrators in Genoa at the G8 summit in 2001 is stony-eyed about the end of the serious left and the serious reason for it, that the ruthlessness and sheer brutality with which, at the slightest significant threat to its monopoly, the global State ― a term we should surely be using by now ― will peremptorily crush any serious opposition have now reached staggering proportions; that the State will immediately summon up vastly superior and vastly more unscrupulous instruments of violence and deploy them without qualm. In The Democracy Project, David Graeber incidentally demonstrates the same point, whilst having only kindergarten tactics to offer in return. McCarthy shrugs at tactics, and, with them, political hope. “Events!” says U, “if you want those, you’d best stop reading now” (p. 13). But McCarthy also has Madison ruefully note that “It isn’t revolutionaries and terrorists who make nuclear power plants melt and blow their tops, or electricity grids crash, or automated trading systems go all higgledly-piggledy and write their billions down to pennies in ten minutes” (p. 129). In Paris, even U can find himself beguiled by the faint historical traces of revolution in the streets he glides through. True, “even as the knowledge flashed up it was extinguished, buried beneath the tarmac” (p. 62). But that, for McCarthy, is where we are right now. Political truths appear momentarily, as vestiges, meteors in a night sky. This underlies McCarthy’s occasional, deft little touches of irony or nostalgia, as in Peyman’s “not even”, above.

Traces of satire, vestiges of politics: these exist as minimal openings in what otherwise threatens to look like an all-encompassingly Luhmannian world. McCarthy offsets them against a gathering darkness. Madison’s story, appearing late as it does, is one aspect of that. For all the attempts to halt it, throughout the novel, Petr’s cancer progressively devours him. Most of all, there is the oil, which threatens to become the novel’s dark eminence, not only because of the frequency of the references to it, but because trickles and blobs of it actually appear on certain pages, in a nauseous parody of Mallarmé’s “l’homme poursuit noir sur blanc”. As U says after Petr’s death, “the stuff of the world is black” (p. 135); black, but, in our time, lit by a monstrous and unearthly glow, the luminescence of a “weirdly opulent” degradation (p. 131). This is the burden of U’s dream vision of the world’s “trash-mountain” as exemplified in Satin Island. The passage functions as both an oneiric transmogrification of the vast rubbish dumps of Staten Island, and, more largely, a phantasmagoric version of the acknowledgement that “The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown into mankind’s face” (p. 130).

The question is how to interpret all this. Testimony to a global system on the edge of chaotic disintegration, wholly powerless to save itself? It’s worth noting that, as the brilliant young economist William Davies tells us, the financial crash of 2008 happened above all because the value of economic values had become impossible to specify. There were, quite simply, too many systems in play, too many descriptions available. Prices and values were indefinitely accordable, but had lost all credibility and authority, with the result that the markets were descending into “groundless mathematical babble”. Groundless babble is one of U’s fortes (hovering spaceship, rabbit warren, pond lilies). Satin Island is McCarthy’s first novel quite to get the essential, dangerous lunacy of the world we currently inhabit. At the same time, in a scenario overtaken by genera, the only singularity is that of pure power, the deranged behaviour of Madison’s torturer. But McCarthy is too wry and too subtle to opt for a vulgar apocalyptics. Nor is he concerned to enter a humanistic protest, in Satin Island or indeed anywhere else in his work. To the sources of our many and various contemporary sentimentalisms McCarthy consistently responds with brusque anaesthesia, even whimsy. Ecological hand-wringing is just “bad aesthetics” (p. 107). The sound of bones breaking as the truncheon blows come whacking down reminds U and Madison of biting into Crunchie bars. What stands out and remains memorable in the footage of a bombing, if not a man in a t-shirt sporting the image of Snoopy lying on his kennel? It is typical of McCarthy that a dying man should chiefly lament that “I’m about to undergo the mother, the big motherfucker of all episodes” but, because he can’t tell the story, “I won’t be able to dine out on it!” (p. 128). What U wants to say to the nurse in Petr’s hospital is merely that “if you can’t save these people, at least clean the windows” (p. 122). Read that metaphorically, and it may seem, finally, that it is as far as McCarthy can go. But what U also admits, if at some length, is that “they haven’t got it all mapped: it’s still hit and miss” (p. 74). As all the various efforts to arrest Petr’s cancer fail, so maybe our autopoietic, system-ridden world isn’t really doing us any favours at all. Maybe the systems are all wrong. Maybe it’s time we struck out on our own. Maybe it’s time to make a start.

Review by Andrew Gibson.





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