by Tom McCarthy
Published March, 2015
In the notorious Seinfeld episode ‘The Pitch’, George Costanza and Jerry go to NBC headquarters spruiking a show ‘about nothing’. When the television executives attempt to glean some meaningful detail about the project, George becomes irate, insisting ‘No! No! No! Nothing happens!’ His protestations appear to be a meta-commentary on Seinfeld’s quotidian plots about riding the subway, going to the cinema, or having dinner at a Chinese restaurant, but his anti-pitch is also a reworking of one version of modernist aesthetic autonomy (a truth partially acknowledged when Costanza defends himself by saying ‘I, for one, am not going to compromise my artistic integrity’). The forerunner of the show about nothing is described by Edouard in Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters (1925) as the ‘pure novel’, which would be stripped of ‘its concern with a certain sort of accuracy’ and therefore refrain from ‘dialogue which is drawn from life’ and the description of ‘characters’, ‘accidents’, ‘traumatisms’, and even ‘[o]utward events’.
This book about nothing – whose style would be so totalising its content dissolves – constitutes one of two ideal forms for the modernist novel. The second modernist ideal is the encyclopaedic book about everything. While the two might seem diametrically opposed, it turns out they have much in common. Both typically refrain from standard modes of narration and logical argumentation, which might make them about something. Moreover, both are incredibly hard to start writing and virtually impossible to complete. Edouard’s novel, like George and Jerry’s show, fails to make it past the pilot stage, just as many of the maximalist novels written during or after modernism are either incomplete – Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (1940) – or else resist narrative closure – James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996).
The protagonist of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is an anthropologist and devotee of Claude Levi-Strauss who is desperately trying to finish a book about everything. U.’s work – the so-called ‘Great Report’, which he is assigned to produce by his boss, Peyman – is to be nothing less than the definitive anthropological account of the contemporary world, ‘the First and Last Word on our age’. U. spends the first half of the novel discussing various attempts at starting the work, including his own preparations for writing, in what is meant to be a comic scene:
That Saturday, I cleared the desktop thoroughly and ruthlessly: every object had to go from it; each notebook, stapler, pencil-holder, scrap of paper … everything … One day, I’d told myself, I’ll need to clean it properly and thoroughly, transform it into a tabula rasa upon which I might compose a great, momentous work. I’d been right: that day was now.
The punchline is that, having cleared his desk, U. defers the writing of his great work. The joke, however, is not McCarthy’s. He lifts the scene from Thomas Bernhard’s The Lime Works (1970), in which Konrad, who desires to write a similarly ambitious work called The Sense of Hearing, discovers that his obsessive desk-rearrangement inhibits his writing:
because I can see clearly that I can begin to write at any moment, that everything is arranged and in perfect order for starting to write, everything is pointing toward this moment of readiness to write, the very awareness that everything is pushing me in this direction naturally makes it impossible for me to start writing.
McCarthy even embeds a second Bernhardian reference by having U. describe the cleaned-off space as his ‘desktop-clearing’, recalling Correction (1975), in which the character Roithamer produces an essay entitled ‘The Clearing’ that discusses a clearing in the wood where he eventually commits suicide (itself a grim parody of Heidegger’s philosophical notion of ‘clearing’).
Such complex allusions run throughout Satin Island. McCarthy even draws the unwary reader’s attention to them in his acknowledgments at the end of the novel:
Satin Island, like all books, contains hundreds of borrowings, echoes, re-mixes and straight repetitions … The critical reader can entertain him- or herself tracking some of them down, if he or she is that way inclined.
As self-commentary, McCarthy’s remarks are strangely ambiguous. While he feels compelled to mention his novel’s intertextuality, he also diminishes its importance. Not only does he note that allusion is common to ‘all books’; he also suggests that these buried references are merely an entertainment for a certain kind of reader.
McCarthy’s allusiveness does have a clear, larger purpose, which I will discuss later, but his technique is harder to justify in particular instances like the one above. Sure, the Bernhard references invoke a specific novelistic tradition, but how do they enrich this scene beyond such framing? This allusion also encourages an unflattering contrast: the Bernhard’s passage quoted above attains a rhetorical richness through its use of repetition that imbues Konrad’s utterances with both pathos and humour; the urgency and frustration of his situation is palpable, and cannot be dismissed, even though it is also absurd. The vertiginous nature of Bernhard’s prose derives from its ability to convey simultaneously these contrasting and irresolvable emotions. But McCarthy’s ‘re-mix’ – with its brief, subject-verb-object sentences – is an attenuation of the original: less distinctive, less complicated, and not nearly as funny.
Despite Satin Island’s attempt to invoke a highbrow, continental predecessor for U., his prototype can easily be found in boring old Victorian literature. U. is a sort of contemporary Edward Casaubon, the lifeless academic in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874),who fails to complete The Key to All Mythologies, a work that would prove ‘that all the mythical systems … in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed’. But there are other more obvious precursors in twentieth-century anglophone literature. In his detached, morbidly-fixated reflections on the mediated and dehumanised nature of contemporary existence, U. resembles Jack Gladney, the Professor of Hitler Studies from Don Delillo’s White Noise (1985). Both traffic in a highly conceptual form of charlatanry: U.’s only academic monograph employs anthropological participant-observation to analyse rave culture, which sounds like a complex justification for taking lots of drugs and staying out late.
The key difference between U. and his precursors is contextual: U. is an anthropologist employed by a corporation. This is not the convenient exaggeration it appears to be, which U. emphasises by discussing what happened to other budding anthropology scholars he studied with:
A third of them had gone to the developing world, to work for NGOs; another third were, like me, working in the corporate sector; the remaining third were academics.
As it happens, one of my oldest friends is a former anthropology postgraduate who works for a company that applies social science data-collection techniques to marketing research. In this sense at least, U. exists.
U.’s job enables Satin Island to mount a broader critique of the corporatisation of both universities and critical theory more generally. His abbreviated name suggests that he is an embodiment of the tertiary sector – although U. is also a pun on the second-person pronoun, ‘you’; an apparent joke on the participatory nature of Web 2.0 (in which ‘you’ create the content); a reference to the character K. from Franz Kafka’s The Castle (1926);an abbreviation, as McCarthy has noted, of Ulrich, the protagonist of The Man Without Qualities;and it literally turns the title of McCarthy’s last novel C (2010) on its side.
The corporate nature of U.’s research is highlighted throughout the novel. He brands a mode of anthropological inquiry (‘Present-Tense Anthropology™’), attends a TED-like conference in which the scholarly papers resemble ‘sales pitches or motivational speeches … backed by the latest AV software’, and describes his work as ‘feeding vanguard theory, almost always from the left-side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine’. His first project involves the company Levi-Strauss (a bad joke about U.’s worship of the eponymous anthropologist), in which he analyses crease marks in jeans through Deleuze’s notion of the fold and Badiou’s concept of a rip. McCarthy explains this critique in ‘The Death of Writing’ (2015), an essay that makes explicit virtually all of Satin Island’s key themes: ‘universities have become businesses’ and ‘businesses … have taken over universities’ former role as society’s prime sites of knowledge generation’.
McCarthy seems to present these ideas as provocative, and, for some readers, they may well be. But the claims that academics are essentially bourgeois knowledge-workers and that corporations increasingly generate and traffic in knowledge or ‘immaterial’ forms of labour are insights autonomous Marxism developed more than 40 years ago. The same holds for the novel’s depiction of ‘left-wing’ critical theory as an R & D sector of the very multinational capitalism it seeks to critique. The set of those who truly believe critical theory to be a politically radical force is composed entirely of authors, scholars and students of critical theory. Is it really surprising that theory – underwritten almost entirely by tertiary institutional structures – produces a rhetoric of radicalism seldom reflected at the level of practice? If McCarthy simply wants to broadcast these critiques to a broader audience, then fair enough, but the problem is that he seems keen, as Satin Island’s acknowledgments suggest, to court a certain type of ‘critical’ reader. I suspect many such readers will respond like the fast-food worker in Dude, Where’s My Car (2000): ‘And then …?’
If nothing else, the inherently compromised nature of critical theory might explain why McCarthy has produced a theoretically engaged fiction instead of a philosophical work. But in Satin Island almost nothing can escape the ‘corporate machine’, which, as U. notes,
could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that weaves all fabric … into what my hero [Levi-Strauss] would have called a master-pattern.
Art is no exception. The company head, Peyman, argues that his business is not consultancy but ‘fiction’ and that his projects are ‘fictions that become real’. Peyman – like George Costanza – even argues for aesthetic autonomy with the stridency of an avant-garde novelist:
The first move for any strategy of cultural production … must be to liberate things – objects situations, systems – into uselessness.
But where, for modernist artists, uselessness was an end in itself, for Peyman it is the first step in a transformative strategy:
Its uselessness sets it to work: as symbol, cipher, spur to the imagination, to productiveness.
Peyman sees autonomy as a lubricant for the capitalist exchange of value, since ‘useless’ objects or concepts can be creatively repurposed and, like the commodity as conceived by Marx, they are endlessly exchangeable and without any value beyond exchangeability itself.
Part of McCarthy’s point in co-implicating art and literature within the totalising logic of capitalism is to advance a claim that literature itself – rather than being separate from the changes wrought by modernity – is, in fact, another instantiation of what he sees as the pre-eminent modern form: the network. In his 2010 essay, ‘Technology and the Novel’, McCarthy states, ‘the more books I write, the more convinced I become that what we encounter in a novel is not selves, but networks’. He extends his position in the ‘The Death of Writing’ by describing modernity’s system of self-organisation, following de Certeau, as a ‘scriptural system’. Literature’s self-reflexivity, its tendency to both frame its own traditions and interact with previous works by citing, repeating, or responding to them, indicates its own complicity within this ‘scriptural matrix’. This explains Satin Island’s extensive and complex use of allusions to other texts. The novel rejects an anthropocentric view of literature as the work of individual genius, in favour of a post-human notion of literature as a self-referring system.
McCarthy extends this notion to produce what is both Satin Island’s most important insight and its central irony. U. ultimately gives up on completing his Great Report, because he realises that any anthropological account of the world would be obsolete: the large data sets that now describe reality are meant to be both written and read by machines, not humans. Although this point is clear enough in the novel, McCarthy helpfully explicates it in ‘The Death of Writing’, arguing that ‘the shadow of omnipresent and omniscient data’ alongside ‘a technologically underwritten capitalism that both writes and reads itself’ effectively ‘makes a mockery of any notion that the writer might have something to inform us’. If that was not sufficiently clear, he goes on to say that
The script, the Great Report, is here, there, everywhere – but who can read it? … Only another piece of software could do that.
U.’s discovery of his own obsolescence is also the death of the modernist dream of the book about everything. As McCarthy states, ‘if James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google’. This insight links Satin Island with McCarthy’s previous (and superior) novel C, even though they differ wildly in form and content; both articulate a post-humanism deeply influenced by second-order cybernetics and Niklaus Luhmann’s systems theory. Unlike George Costanza and Jerry Seinfeld, McCarthy’s pitch is well honed, his angle clearly established.
Tom McCarthy is an interesting writer. I mean this in a precise way: Sianne Ngai, in Our Aesthetic Categories (2012) – a book that examines what, twenty years ago, would have been called postmodernism – defines the ‘interesting’ as an important contemporary aesthetic category that ‘has been associated with genres with an unusual investment in theory’. As Ngai goes onto argue, the museum constitutes the most significant site for ‘interesting’ aesthetics, because it institutionalises the ‘framing’ of art through the use of labels that provide written commentary:
This institutional practice spurs artists to try to exert greater control over their work’s reception by offering some form of their own commentary in advance.
Perhaps the signal genre of the interesting is thus the ‘artist’s statement’, which discursively grounds creative practice in theoretical concepts.
Before the release of McCarthy’s last two novels, he published two essays (the previously mentioned ‘Technology and the Novel’ and ‘The Death of Writing’) in the Guardian. These essays have often been treated as manifestoes – an understandable conclusion given McCarthy’s dissemination of manifesto-like documents as part of his International Necronautical Society (INS). The INS Bulletins and Declarations evoke the revolutionary fervour of such early twentieth-century movements as the Futurists and the Vorticists by offering contradictory and ambiguous proclamations that are meant to provoke and shock, instead of straightforwardly explicating a new aesthetic.
But McCarthy’s two essays function in an expository mode, providing the rationale for his novels and summarising their most important claims. In short, they are artist’s statements – which makes sense given that McCarthy is also a visual artist. Visual arts practices exert a significant influence on Satin Island: its detailed descriptions of oil-spills derive from McCarthy’s own media-art experiments, and the major (although amorphous) project U. works on is named ‘Koob-Sassen’, a reference to the ‘Errorist’ mixed-media artist Hilary Koob-Sassen, whose productions discuss topics (infrastructure projects, more oil spills) that become leitmotifs in Satin Island (the project’s name also recalls the sociologist Saskia Sassen, famous for her work on globalism, who went by the name Saskia Sassen-Koob early in her career).
McCarthy’s use of the artist’s statement clashes with Satin Island’s suggestion that there is nothing left for the old humanist forms – the novel, the anthropological study – to convey. If the novel no longer communicates meaningful information, why outline your intent in such explicit terms? McCarthy anticipates this critique in his acknowledgments, mentioning the ‘general impossibility of writing a novel about the general impossibility of etc.’, and thereby opening a metafictional regress plucked straight from the postmodern author’s handbook. It appears that McCarthy’s argument about the death of the humanist novel – rather than being totalising – is meant to spur a different kind of art. McCarthy hints at his motives in a blurb for Aaron Jaffe’s monograph, The Way Things Go (2014), a work not so different from the anthropology of the present U. wants to write. McCarthy praises Jaffe for avoiding ‘the lazy, sub-Buddhistic essentialism blighting so much contemporary thinking about things in general and things in particular’ – a statement that indicates his frustration with those who would confront the strangeness of the present by retreating into humanist truisms or fuzzy mysticism.
Understanding this frustration helps to explain McCarthy’s suggestion in ‘The Death of Literature’ for a mode of the novel after big data: ‘we could explore, with trepidation and with melancholy joy, this ultra-paradoxical and zombie-like condition’. McCarthy’s modest proposal advocates a fiction that would address the reality of our post-human, contemporary moment. Such fiction, although different from realism as we know it, would nonetheless be a form of realism that explores an increasingly unreal reality. McCarthy complicates his claims by having U. explain that the contemporary world no longer has an essential structure that can be mimetically represented, a point McCarthy also makes in his London Review of Books essay ‘Writing Machines’ (2014). But despite such caveats, McCarthy’s aesthetic appears to contain a pseudo-realist desire to explore – and perhaps even represent – a contemporary world that is increasingly post-human, globalised, and technocratic. This, more or less, is his project.
If I have focused on Satin Island’s theoretical content, it is because both the novel and McCarthy’s commentary foreground this material. Conceptually speaking, the novel is theoretically coherent (if not entirely unassailable) and aesthetically intriguing (if not exactly innovative). But Satin Island is made of more than concepts: it would not pass muster as Edouard’s ‘pure novel’, because it does describe characters, accidents, outside events and traumas, as well as present dialogue drawn from life and concern itself with a certain sort of accuracy. As McCarthy has acknowledged, his novels are not really all that avant-garde. They employ a series of novelistic tropes drawn from Modernist, postmodernist, naturalist, and realist traditions. For all of its high theory, Satin Island is composed with the same materials as any novel produced by the prefab manufactory of US creative-writing programs.
U. is an exemplar of the unreliable and often unlikable narrator, a favoured trope of twentieth-century novelists. He is basically a putz with some schmuck-ish tendencies: his ideas are indebted, his scholarly methods dubious, and his lone attempt to win over an academic audience with his theoretical acumen falls flat. U. is also a bad employee: shiftless, easily distracted, and uncertain as to what his job actually entails. At an important meeting with his boss towards the end of the book, U. does not even pay attention:
I let myself get lost in this imagining, and didn’t take in what he was saying to me. After a while, I realized that he’d paused, and expected me to answer something.
He has delusions of revolutionary grandeur, and even imagines leading a brigade of other Present-Tense Anthropologists™ on a Molotov cocktail throwing spree of anarchistic destruction. U. isn’t a very good friend, either; after his final visit to Petr, who is dying in hospital, U. recounts in detail the complex theory of death he developed while there, but cannot recall any of their actual conversation. U. has a girlfriend, Madison, but he seems to have very little investment in her beyond their fabulous dinners out and sexual encounters. U. even freely vents his class prejudice. In the novel’s final scene, he looks at a homeless man checking a payphone for spare change and thinks:
He looked all wrong; anachronistic. Who uses payphones these days?
Here, U.’s anthropology of the contemporary occludes the simple, material sufferings of poverty.
U. is certainly a satire, meant to embody all of our bad, narcissistic failings. And there is nothing wrong in having an unlikable character of this sort narrate a novel. To return to the example of Thomas Bernhard, one might note that his novels are almost solely populated by unlikable characters, who are seriously, and even criminally flawed – as is the case with Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, the archetypal postmodern unreliable narrator. While they don’t have to be likeable, such narrators usually are compelling in some way. U., however, is not. This seems to be McCarthy’s intent: he has employed flat, affectless protagonists in his previous novels. In Remainder and C, the protagonists’ flatness profitably contrasts with the intensity of surrounding events, but because Satin Island contains little in the way of traditional plotting, there is no relief from U.’s boorish pontificating.
This problem multiples as U. ponders and elaborates on a series of discrete phenomena, including Vanuatuan ritual practices, skydivers who have been murdered after their parachutes were sabotaged, the oddly viscous movement of oil combined with sea water, and the nature of swarming behaviours, whether in crowds of humans or animals. Many of these passages are fine enough on their own, but they suffer because they are connected by U. He is the scaffolding that enables McCarthy to wax pseudo-philosophically on a variety of things, but he cannot bear this burden for the simple reason that he is dull. This is not just because U. is an academic, either. As Lars Iyer has demonstrated recently in his trilogy of novels – Spurious (2011), Dogma (2012), Exodus (2013) – it is possible to produce a satire of academic theorists that is pointed, engrossing and genuinely funny. Satin Island rarely produces actual laughter. McCarthy’s many gags are always funny in concept, but rarely in practice.
Aside from the problem of U., there are many moments where the novelistic seams of Satin Island remain visible, undermining the illusion of presence it appears to be aiming for. When U. visits a museum in Frankfurt, he engages in a strange conversation with his friend Claudia about changes in the field of anthropology during the twentieth century:
But then, she said, all that changed. How? I asked Well, she said, from the mid-Sixties, there was a turn away from objects: suddenly the prevailing wisdom held that you don’t need to look at posts and arrows any more – you need to study patterns of behavior and belief and so forth: your school of anthropology, U. She cast an angry glance at me.
Even setting aside the clichéd phrasing of the last sentence, this passage is deeply flawed. It works as convenient exposition to inform the reader about the history of anthropology, but it makes no sense within the logic of the novel. Both of these characters are employed anthropology scholars. We know that U. has an advanced degree in the field, and it would certainly appear that Claudia does as well. They would both be well and truly familiar with this information, which would usually have been imparted at the early stages of academic training. For Claudia to explicate these shifts, as she does here – unless it is some ironic gender-inversion of mansplaining – defies all belief. Moreover, U. would never ask a question about how anthropology has changed, when that seems to be his sole and consuming intellectual passion.
Satin Island consistently struggles with exposition, and often misjudges when and how much to apply. For example, U. offers a detailed recounting of Erwin Schrödinger’s famous 1935 thought-experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat, but is there any educated human being in the world not familiar with this concept? Indeed, it has been so widely appropriated in television, film and literature that there is a Wikipedia page dedicated to ‘Schrödinger’s Cat in Popular Culture’. Perhaps McCarthy’s point is that U. is a bore. But this is sufficiently established and the repetition of such common (and easily discoverable) information seems hard to justify. The problem stems, I think, from McCarthy’s notion of literature as system, which means that it becomes hard for him to resist making an allusion, even when it is ill-considered.
Aside from belabouring the obvious and encouraging negative comparisons, the technique often feels forced. In a late scene, in which U. is watching the Staten Island Ferry, he says:
Like a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a piece of driftwood, or a gambler down to his last chips reaching for the dice to take a final roll, I’d gravitated here …
Not only is there a bit of a mixed metaphor in the employment of ‘gravitated’, but also the opening similes, which gloss Mallarmé’s poem ‘Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard’, simply feel awkward – even if you do get the reference. I can see how it works thematically, given that the novel’s epigraph comes from Mallarmé’s essay ‘Limited Action’, which reflects on the impossibility of producing a novel that would account for the present. But surely there are better ways to allude to the poem – ones that don’t require such clunky language. Moreover, the allusion creates a problematic ambiguity. Since it is unlikely that U. would apply these uncommon similes by accident, it seems that U., as the narrator, intends to allude to Mallarmé. While the passage encourages this reading, I doubt it was what McCarthy meant.
The novel’s characterisation is also inconsistent. Aside from U., the cast of the novel – Peyman (U.’s boss), Tapio (‘Peyman’s right-hand man’), Petr (U.’s friend), Claudia (the anthropologist in the museum), Madison (U.’s girlfriend) – is almost entirely one-dimensional. This makes sense, given U.’s self-obsession and inability to empathise with others. Nonetheless, this representative method breaks down with Madison, whom McCarthy attempts to flesh out in a few ways: not only does she responds to U.’s ideas with cynicism, but also she voices what appears to be a privileged insight in the novel (though McCarthy later notes that it comes from McKenzie Wark):
It isn’t revolutionaries and terrorists who make nuclear power plants melt and blow their tops, or electricity grids crash, or automated systems go all higgledy-piggledy and write their billions down to pennies in ten minutes – they all do that on their own.
But there is not much to her beyond this, which becomes problematic when she discloses a traumatic part of her history that implicates U.’s corporate project with authoritarian regimes of control. Her thin characterisation makes this cathartic revelation appear forcibly wedged into the narrative and has the effect of reducing her to a cipher.
For a novel critical of realism, Satin Island employs many tried and true realist techniques to establish tone. In the scene where Madison discloses her secret, U. briefly describes the setting:
Dusk was coming down, but they hadn’t switched on the restaurant’s lighting yet. Madison sat back in her chair. As her face retreated from me, it grew indistinct.
The dusky half-light of the restaurant reinforces the sombreness of the moment, just as Madison’s ‘indistinct’ face in the shadows reflects U.’s limited knowledge of her. These are some of the most hackneyed tropes available to realist fiction, and here they are deployed without complication. Such derivative repetitions of standard techniques – and there are many in Satin Island – become particularly difficult to reconcile with the novel’s self-framing.
And this raises the essential problem with Satin Island and McCarthy’s work as a whole. He is not a bad writer, but his prose lacks grace or verve. At its best, it is capable of effectively evoking surreal visual experiences, as in U.’s description of his dream of an imaginary place called Satin Island, which turns out to be a massive garbage incinerator:
Inside this complex, rubbish was being burnt: it was a trash incinerating plant. Giant mountains of the stuff were piled up in its great, empty halls, rising in places almost to where the ceiling would have been. They were being burnt slowly, from the inside, with a smouldering, rather than roaring, fire. Whence the glow: like embers when you poke them, the mounds’ surfaces, where cracked or worn through by the heat, were oozing a vermillion shade of yellow. It was this glowing ooze, which hinted at a deeper, almost infinite reserve of yet-more-glowing ooze inside the trash-mountain’s main body, that made the scene so rich and vivid, filled it with a splendour that was regal.
Both thematically and emotionally, this is one of the novel’s most important scenes, which is reflected by the comparatively rich and complex writing. This passage, in other words, represents the upper-limit of McCarthy’s rhetorical capacity. While it works well enough (despite explicitly stating that the scene was ‘so rich and vivid’), no one will accuse McCarthy of being an outstanding stylist.
McCarthy’s prose, rather than being performative, is a sort of mucilage that binds together associations:
Turin, Torino-Caselle, took on over time, a kind of sacred aspect: this airport, this slow-spinning hub, this thorn-crown of delay, became, for me, the site of a divine mystery.
A simple sentence produces an accretion of related ideas: Christ’s crown of thorns, the Shroud of Turin (which U. mentions in the first sentence of the novel); U.’s concept of modernity as a freehub bicycle wheel, and the practice (mentioned later) of Vanuatuan women whipping themselves with thorns, which links this sentence to Madison’s revelation of her ordeal, which, as we discover, occurred in Turin. Put simply, McCarthy’s prose works best when agglutinating concepts, which makes sense for a novel whose merits, as McCarthy’s artist statement suggests, are mostly conceptual.
While reading Satin Island, I often found myself thinking about the various grant-assessment panels I have sat on over the years. Part of this reflection was contextual, given the recent and – in my opinion – entirely indefensible decision of Australia’s Minister for the Arts, George Brandis, to undermine the process of arm’s-length arts funding distributed by expert panels. While the arts community in Australia has been entirely correct to criticise Brandis’ administrative changes, which will likely prove disastrous for many important artists and institutions, there has also been a tendency to affirm the old system uncritically. It may well be the case that arms-length expert funding is the least-worst way to fund the arts, but the reality, as anyone with experience on panels knows, is that this model tends to produce certain kinds of outcomes. Established practices and practitioners tend to win out over emergent ones; projects with clearly defined goals and outputs often receive funding over initiatives that are more open-ended, but have greater potential; artists who are adept at grant-writing and know how to frame their projects with appropriate context and a coherent rationale are typically better at attracting funding. In short, grant application processes typically push artists to articulate what is ‘interesting’ about their art, and thus reinforce, in soft and indirect ways, the centrality of the interesting as an aesthetic mode.
Another practical truth about grant funding is that, while all shortlisted applications receive ‘due consideration’, applications which have the highest and lowest aggregate scores among assessors rarely require much discussion. Art may well be entirely subjective, but most panels achieve a pretty quick consensus about what they think is the best and the worst. The most intense and heated discussions, in my experience, concern those applications in the middle, where strong advocacy by an expert panellist can push a project over the line. During such discussions, I have often heard the public servants who supervise the panels ask a seemingly simple question about a given project: ‘Is it fundable?’
But ‘fundability’ – which, alas, goes unmentioned by Sianne Ngai – is hardly a straightforward concept. It is, at best, a pseudo-aesthetic category, which is more about context than content. The question of fundability is also a seemingly simple way of asking several unrelated questions at once. On one hand, it means: ‘Are we going to get laughed at for funding this?’ On the other hand, it means: ‘Will the artist actually finish this project?’ At heart, though, it is an administrative question about whether the artist has respectfully followed the bureaucratic procedures, set out a budget that looks reasonable, and put forth an artistic rationale that is plausible and coherent – without, of course, being too dangerously or radically innovative.
Satin Island, if nothing else, is eminently fundable.
Thomas Bernhard, The Lime Works, translated by Sophie Wilkins (Knopf, 1973).
⎯ Correction, translated by Sophie Wilkins (Knopf, 1979).
André Gide, The Counterfeiters, translated by Dorothy Bussy and Justin O’Brien (Vintage, 1973).
Tom McCarthy, ‘Writing Machines,’ London Review of Books (18 December 2014).
⎯ ‘Technology and the Novel, from Blake to Ballard,’ Guardian (23 July 2010).
⎯ ‘The Death of Writing - if James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google,’ Guardian (7 March 2015).
Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard University Press, 2012)