Texts we read by Tom McCarthy (each read alongside the order of the films below):
Satin Island (2015)
The conference was also an occassion for the release of Tom McCarthy's most recent book: Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish: Essays (2017). We were honored to receive advance copy of this text to read as part of the conference.
Synechdoche, New York,
The Accursed Share Volumes 1-3 (George Bataille)
Reading Group 1 (Tom McCarthy's Remainder, Groundhog Day):
Our discussion centered on two questions Zadie Smith posits in her recent New York Review of Books article "Two Paths for the Novel," where she insists that Tom McCarthy's writing is some of the most inventive to date: why the perennial obsession with psychological realism? And how and why does McCarthy's Remainder offer a brave, experimental, and genre-defining break from such realism and its corollary: the desire for a straightforward mimetic aesthetic generally? Among the many topics discussed were 1) whether the novel was "posthumanist" in its lack of a protagonist with subjective, emotional interiority, 2) how we might read the novel's obsession with repitition as a commentary on contemporary social life in the era of the ersatz, and as a reinvocation of some longstanding Freudian truths that remain ever relevant today (the death drive, transference, fort da compensation, etc.).
Reading Group 2 (Tom McCarthy's Satin Island, Synechdoche, New York):
Today our discussion once again revolved around McCarthy's experimental writing style. We began, however, by discussing how his very recent novel, Satin Island, configures itself within the tradition of Great Books Literature--specifically, within the vein of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, a novel whose opening line, "Call me Ishmael," echoes throughout McCarthy's version of the same: "Me? Call me U." The novel follows a corporate anthropologist whose main task is to write the "Great Report" (notice here the distant echo of the phrase "the great American novel"). In doing so, the unnamed narrator (who is also U, the reader) takes the reader on a picaresque journey through our contemporary moment, one best characterized as corporate, digital, postmodern, instrumentalist, and ersatz. Some major questions we asked this session: To what extent does Charlie Kaufman's film Synechdoche, New York contribute to the same lineage/genre of social commentary anthropology as McCarthy's novel? How might we read these two texts together as a definitive (if snarky) survey of our present moment, one where Baudrillard's concept of "simulacra" now seems an omnipresent reality to which we remain captive--willingly and otherwise--despite our best intentions?
Reading Group 3: (Tom McCarthy's C, Jean Cocteau's Orpheus):
Today saw a marked divergence from our usual configuration of McCarthy's work as experimental, as his novel, C, is first and foremost a work of historical fiction that only secondarily dabbles in what we've at this point in our meetings have termed his empty-shell posthumanism, a term that describes his protagonists' lack of emotion/subjective interiority. Focusing as it does on the history of modern communication and flight technology as it developed in late 19th and early 20th century northern Europe, the novel offers what seems to us a history without a subject--an account of modern techology not as a product of human genius or intervention, but as an organically self-producing and self-sustaining phenomenon with a mind, agenda, and teleology of its own. Much of our discussion centered on how the novel's narrative style and form mimics and performs precisely this logic at the level of language. In this same vein, our discussion of Cocteau's infamous film, Orpheus, focused less on its updating of the Greek parable where Orpheus' descends into Hades to save Eurydice, and more on the film's oblique references to radio technology as commentary on the changing conditions of film production and mass communication during the modern era.