[005 - Satin Island]
May 20, 2017 by alex christie
I picked up Tom McCarthy's Satin Island when I began conceptualizing and planning my dissertation proposal. In an effort to situate my project in whatever 'the contemporary' is, I scoured the web for discussions, syllabi, and articles that focused on the contemporary novel. Reading through Post-45's series of letters from Princeton's 'The Contemporary' conference, McCarthy's novel came into focus as 'the most discussed (and maligned) novel of the conference,' so I decided to give it a shot.
This description of the novel makes sense by the time you finish the first page. Our narrator, who we later learn is a corporate cultural anthropologist named 'U.', describes the shroud of Turin, which only came into focus 'when some amateur photographer looked at the negative of a shot he'd taken of the thing, and saw the figure---pale and faded, but there nonetheless. Only in the negative: the negative became a positive, which means that the shroud itself was, in effect, a negative already' (3). Right: the dialectical play of signifiers where the maligned or background element is elevated or brought into the foreground. You know immediately, if you're unfamiliar with McCarthy's work, that you're in a novel heavily mediated by critical theory. U. considers himself a new Levi-Strauss, a figure who comes up repeatedly throughout, an aspirational figure for U.'s work compiling dossiers for the Company to advise other companies on (re)branding, paradigm shifting, and general business speak. However, U. has surpassed Levi-Strauss by the time we meet him, having written a semi-famous ethnographic account of the New York club culture. His work foregrounds the collapse of field and home, work and life, noting, 'when the object of your study is completely interwoven with your own life and its rhythms, this distinction vanishes: Where (I asked, repeatedly) does home end and field begin...Does sex with a Lycra-miniskirted informant on your writing table at five a.m. when you're both tripping count?' (25). Postmodernism teaches us this lesson well, and it bears repeating, but it's the novel's insistence of this indistinction and continual rendering of where we experience indistinctions within 'the contemporary' where the novel seems most relevant and 'malign[able].'
More than anything, Satin Island is the culmination of thick descriptive practices offered by both postmodernism and poststructuralism (and its heirs), but in the key of the contemporary. On the theoretical front, the novel suggests that postmodernism has been surpassed and wholly integrating it into neoliberal sphere. U. describes his job as 'feeding vanguard theory [Levi-Strauss, Deleuze, Badiou], almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that reweaves all fabric, no matter how recalcitrant and jarring its raw form, into what my hero would have called a master-pattern---or, if not that, then maybe just the pattern of the master' (33). Two contradictory things appear to happen here: on the one hand, theory is rendered impotent in the face of contemporary capitalism since it can be woven into the master-narrative that circumscribes the globe. On the other hand, the novel resists meta-narratives wholesale. U.'s pet project, 'The Great Report,' a unified dossier of everything, is always discussed as an impossibility---a narrative that cannot and will no cohere. U. continuously confronts the difficulty of giving it form: 'What fluid morphing hybrid could I come up with to be equal to the task? What medium, or media, would it inhabit? Would it tell a story? If so, how, and about what, or whom? If not, how would it all congeal, around what cohere?' (78). Despite multiple attempts, the project never reaches fruition. This tension between the (im)possibility of meta-narratives makes Satin Island both post-postmodern and perhaps not postmodern enough, with capitalism being the only remaining metanarrative, continuing to 'swallow everything.' The contemporary becomes a threshold through which well-worn forms are always already inadequate, but novelty remains just out of reach.
Satin Island surely depicts contemporary lived experience beyond the academic thought experiments U. finds himself working through. The tedium of surveillance culture, the ubiquity of natural disasters, and a news cycle predicated on spectacle all make an appearance, helping to map the dizziness of ubiquitous information. The mysterious death of a parachuter runs throughout the novel, catching U.'s eye early in the novel but fading out of the news cycle as the trail of clues related to what's deemed a homicide runs dry. U., however, thinks he's solved it, creating a bulletin board and dossier of clues: the parachuters were playing a game of Russian Roulette, 'I was certain of this...The triangles, the lines and vectors all made sense now: it seemed to me, in that instant, that I'd solved not just a private puzzle but a fundamental riddle of our time' (129). Everything becomes a fractal, fitting into a larger and comprehensive whole, even as the novel reminds us that the whole cannot hold. U.'s theory ends up being a warning against this process by which everything can be fit into a unified whole. When U. thinks 'I saw the truth behind the parachutist case,' the novel is warning against any kind of 'truth' residing beneath or behind what's presented (128, my emphasis). That is, the contemporary straddles the line between singularity and part of a larger whole. The novel, in both form and content, performs this tension, but doesn't offer much of a way through, just more description.
While reading, I thought of Don DeLillo's Mao II (1991), a very different mapping of a very different era, but both texts go to pains to ask 'what is the major cultural force in circulation globally?' Whereas Mao II suggests the terrorist has replaced the novelist as the major cultural creative force , Satin Island shows how the contemporary is haunted by a far more insidious presence. U.'s lover tells him, 'You want to be the hero in the film who runs away in slo-mo from the villains factory that he's just mined, throwing himself to the ground as it explodes. But the explosion's taking place already---it's always been taking place. You just didn't notice' (140). Of course, the very entropy the destroys the system is what is integrated back into it, much like the vanguard theory U. replenishes the Company with. The system itself, neoliberalism and globalism, are the main forces that move things. It's here that I begin understanding why the novel was maligned by many at 'The Contemporary' conference. It's such a good description of contemporary lived experience that it feels on the nose, as if everything U. tells us is something that I already knew but needed verification. But this experience makes me think that we're heading towards the now-ness that U. describes. These reminders of the indistinction between life and field, cause and effect, part and whole, the collapsing of these binaries, helps foreground the state of 'the contemporary' not as something to rally against but take as a new framework---endless and self-perpetuating.
I'm avoiding much of the plot, but one moment to end on that's important my project is the force guarantees the continuity of the world U. inhabits. In a moment of lucidity, he notes, 'It strikes me that our entire social organism--it's economy, it's social policy, its civil order--that these don't implode, hurling us all into a wild abyss of plunder, rape and burning, is down to their being reined in, held in alignment, by a yoking to this notion of the Future' (91). So perhaps it's not entropy or theory that neoliberalism, globalism, and capitalism feast on, but the imaginary future that allows the present to maintain standard operating practices. As U. is noting here, without the phantasmic future just out of our reach, the present would cease to hold. In this way, we might situate Satin Island's on-the-nose-ness as part of re(con)figuring the present in order to continue imagining a future, the very thing that keeps the present churning forward. While efforts to rethink the contemporary, U.'s Present-Tense AnthropologyTM, are met with confusion or derision, the novel's descriptions of contemporary lived experience, simultaneously (counter)intuitive, offer one mapping that might trouble S.O.P., jamming the Company's machinery and offering a space to (re)work the present and future.
1. 'Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed. The artist is absorbed, the madman in the street is absorbed and processed and incorporated. Give him a dollar, put him in a TV commercial. Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn't figured out how to assimilate him. It's confusing when they kill the innocent. But this is precisely the language of being noticed, the only language the West understands. The way they determine how we see them' (Mao II, 157).