Present: Tom McCarthy (author, installation artist), Fatoş Üstek (curator, mathematician), Clémentine Deliss (curator, researcher), Alfie Spencer (Flamingo Group Head of Semiotics), Mark Blacklock (author)
Apologies: Claude Levi-Strauss (anthropologist), Levi Strauss (businessman), Bronisław Malinowski (anthropologist), Guy Debord (situationist), Paul Rabinow (anthropologist of “the contemporary”), Alain Badiou (thinker), Roland Barthes (semiotician), Jacques Derrida (deconstructionist), Douglas B. Holt (author on brands), Daniel Defoe (novelist)
- The Book
I find myself in the position of the narrator, U, in Tom McCarthy’s book Satin Island, surrounded by screens and data, trying to synthesise raw unconnected toomuchinformation into narratives. There are four elements: the Show, the Book, the Think Tank, the Company Report, and the Interview. There are five elements.
Satin Island is “a book about the general impossibility of writing a book about the general impossibility of etc.” U (a poor man’s Ulrich from Musil’s Man Without Qualities) is a corporate anthropologist who has been tasked with creating The Great Report, “the First and Last Word on our age.” To this end, he scrolls through countless images, circling around various obessions: oil spills, cargo cults, ethnographic objects, critical theory, the transport system in Lagos, the mysterious death of parachutists. Like Shakespeare’s Autolycus he is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. The book documents these obsessions but can’t unify them.
ACTION: The reader will consider whether the artistic success of the book at representing (even dramatising) the unassailable rag-bag nature of information/knowledge while revelling in curious and interesting detail, is achieved at the cost of the literary failure of the book, inasmuch as we are given a plotless novel with no proper characters or satisfying meaning. What are novels for, anyway?
- The Show
I wondered if it was just a marketing exercise, turning the book into an installation and having the whole text read aloud (flatly as a “Company Report”). It turns out that Tom McCarthy is no stranger to the gallery space, and the book itself grew out of a 2010 residency projecting oil spills. In Satin Island, U creates vast dossiers from unrelated material, sticking them up on the walls of the offices of the Company and trying to find connections, like Beuys diagrams, or Benjamin’s Constellating Dots. Stage designer Laura Hopkins designed the space, littering it with U and McCarthy’s source texts, images and scrawled connections. It was an effective representation of the book, maybe with a cheeky viral bit of marketing thrown in.
ACTION: The reader will consider whether in fact all the work that takes place in any gallery space is in fact just a marketing exercise, and ask whether what is being sold is an idea, or the work, or the career of the creator of the work.
- The Think Tank
The Think Tank aimed to trace anthropology through corporate culture and literature through a ‘brain-storming session’ that was actually somewhere between a lecture and a seminar. A “golden triangle” was postulated combining literature, corporate culture, and anthropology. This was an exposition of the book, but interesting in itself as an interrogation of meaning-making and information gathering in several different spheres. Fatoş Üstek (who as an undergraduate studied topology) mind-mapped the event on a huge wall mirror, “curating in a semantic sense”.
Clementine Deliss (curator, researcher, publisher) discussed anthropology and ethnography, and asked probing questions about the impulses of ethnographers and museums. The anthropologist is a ‘bug chaser’ a collector writing everything down in detail, but Levi-Strauss himself advised that we should forget objects and study culture and behaviour: the oilspill of modernity.
ACTION: The reader is asked to consider what is the nature of hoarding, classification and acquisition, and whether it can be subversive when there is also immaterial culture. If authenticity refers to a local identifiable product of one culture, how do we refigure authenticity in the context of globalisation?
Alfie Spencer (the amusingly titled Head of Semiotics at the Flamingo Group) presented a theory of branding in relation to the meaning-making. Beginning with his self-definition “I brand (verb) the way an author says ‘I observe, I interpret’” and that his position (which is analogous to the central character of Satin Island) is at an intersection between production, commerce/business and capitalism. He helps corporations make money by analyzing what it is to brand versus write versus interpret. There is a confrontation between how objects resist language and can be made to ‘speak’ via branding. Writing remakes, interpretation asks what it can do within a form of life, and branding makes a future for it. In this sense, branding is a process of closure, whereas writing is open.
ACTION: The reader is asked to consider whether writing would love to be branding, whether interpretation lusts after branding’s finality, and to consider this in relation to a novel whose open form resists closure, and further to consider whether the ambition of branding is the same as that of propaganda, and whether Alfie Spencer is therefore a tool of The Company, a footman for the Ruling Class Apparatus, forcing final forms on us.
Mark Blacklock offered up literature as a site for “speculative anthropology” and discussed Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe is a corporatist, a bookkeeper, reducing everything to information, just like U in Satin Island. Information gathering becomes the central theme of Defoe’s novel too, which is also tied to the acquisitive research methods of ethnographers in putting together collections of objects that create narratives about societies.
ACTION: The reader is invited to consider whether to answer Blacklock’s call for “an anthropology of solitude” with regard to Robinson Crusoe, bearing in mind Alix Mortimer’s priceless tweet: “To get your New Paradigm name, take your real name and put An Anthropology of… in front of it”
Mark Blocklock also reported that “Robinson Crusoe spends three years using his craft to craft a craft – a boat – which when finished can’t be moved, so it becomes a sculpture.” I love this in and of itself, but this is also a teleological point that reminds me of one of the paradoxes of ethnographic objects: that whatever their original purpose was, once they are put on display they become art objects.
ACTION: The reader is further asked to consider whether this pipe is or is not a pipe.
- The Company Report
The reading of the complete book out loud was a homage to On Kawara’s One Million Years, in which huge ledgers filled with all of the dates from a million years ago to a million in the future are read slowly and neutrally, monotonously. Perhaps McCarthy intended this to draw attention to the contrast between vast empty timescales and the overwhelmingly data rich present.
ACTION: The reader will consider the meaning of alluding to On Kawara in the performance of Satin Island being read out loud in the style of a ‘company report’ and whether this is a comment on timescales or the sheer implacableness of data.
- The Interview
The author Tom McCarthy claims that authors are byproducts, that to think the author is the source of meaning is like saying a plastic bottle is the source of the water it contains: it’s a straight-up category error. The author is a byproduct of literature. There are author patches swirling around the Pacific Ocean as we speak, redundantly and useless. Yes, meaning is a bundle of relations that goes back centuries and forward too, but in Barthes’s seminal essay he announced the death of the author and even now people act as if it never happened. What digital culture pushes to the forefront is not even the death of the author or even the redundancy of an act of writing, but the question of which routes to pursue, the methodology of navigation. This is what the Situationists were asking; they saw things as simple as walking the ‘wrong way’ round Paris as an act of resistance and as an artistic practice. Not for nothing does the book Satin Island share the same initials as Situationist International.
ACTION: The reader is called upon to consider what writing is, and what writing would be if everything is already written. How can we understand a writing or literature that would operate differently? Can we imagine a form of writing as resistance to grand narratives, devoted to opening up ambiguities?
ACTION: The reader is asked to consider whether Tom McCarthy is a byproduct.
- Any Other Business
Grand narratives are back. Okay so there’s no codex unlocking the master meaning of the age, but there is a master programme, and it is being administered by Apple and Google. The Company. The Corporation, Leviathon, processing vast amounts of data. Every keystroke is sold to the NSA. Apple’s locked-down battery-flattening PC-poisoning products now fill me with as much dread as the horrific self-belming output of Microsoft, the tech equivalent of those dreadful Hollywood movies that are obviously stamped out by committees rather than creatives. Is Google’s motto still “Don’t be evil”? I can’t even remember.
The world is literally being remade: the Universal Texture is a rather terrifyingly named Google patent for mapping textures onto a 3D model of the entire globe. Sometimes this goes wrong, and for a moment the workings of the Universal Texture are exposed, and it’s like being Neo seeing the Matrix, or a glimpse of the Mind of God. Clement Valla has a wonderful project documenting examples of these surreal/cubist mistakes in Google Earth when large structures are reconstructed wrongly.
ACTION: The reader is asked to consider the question “Who might inhabit these landscapes?”
How do the totalising corporations get away with it? Satin Island’s Koob-Sassen Project is explained away thus: “It is… a pretty boring subject. Don’t get me wrong: the Project was important. It will have had direct effects on you: in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it is secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring.”
In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King we also learn about the efficacy of ennui to make invisible, to stifle politics: “The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull. […] The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting. People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it.” (85)
U’s relationship to media is almost gnostic, pursuing a deep secret that is forever elusive, a Godhead beyond the veil. It is fundamentally a literary relation. The whole world is an encrypted text. McCarthy notes that we can trace this back to a theological impulse – the world was a script for god. Not to mention structuralists, and he notes that Walter Benjamin’s and Jacques Derrida’s epistemologies come out of Jewish mysticism. Digital figurations are fascinating but not categorically new.
ACTION: The reader is thanked for reading, and invited to have a lovely day. Do comment!
Date of next meeting: Wednesday 22 April, London Review Bookshop, Tom McCarthy in conversation with Nick Lezard