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“Obsessed with buffering”

Tom McCarthy

“Obsessed with buffering”
Questions to Tom McCarthy

in: Recessional—Or, the Time of the Hammer, p. 31 – 48

Elisabeth Bronfen

We’re going to see whether we have some questions. Good, I don’t even have to break the ice.


Audience

The icebreaking fits well because I think I have another work for your collection: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge. It’s a voyage to the South Pole—so hence the ice—but I was thinking of the fact that Coleridge frames the story that the ancient mariner tells with a sinful act. That sinful act is of course shooting the albatross. This then brings on the suspension of time which moves the ship into the Doldrums. Nothing moves anymore, everybody dies and then the ghost ship turns up with Death and Life throwing the dice for the soul of the ancient mariner. Death loses so the ship continues with the whole crew who are basically zombies: dead bodies that are moved around by supernatural creatures. The ship sales back to England and the moment it reaches the harbor, everybody drops dead, the ship falls apart and the only person who survives is the ancient mariner who is now condemned to tell his story.


Tom McCarthy

“He stoppeth one of three” outside a church where a wedding is going to happen.


Audience

That’s right, he stops them on the way to the consummation of the wedding. Do you agree that this fits the general narrative of your talk?


T.MC.

Yes, absolutely. There’s another wonderful ship moment in Dracula as well on the Demeter: they’re dead or they’re all going to die—or more precisely, they’re transporting death, undead death (Dracula), in a coffin, just like Addie Bundren. I always think this is somehow about September the 11th: the last ones to die crash the ship into the harbor; with their last strength they just tie themselves to the steering wheel and head straight for the town rather than the designated parking space—which on September the 11th would be the airport. There seems to be something very prescient about this death ship driven by someone who is already effectively dead.

I had forgotten about the dice in the Ancient Mariner, but the point in Mallarmé is that the dice is not thrown, although the poem itself produces a dicey numbering of some type.


Audience

But I think that that would be my point: this is probably the difference between a Romantic poem and a Modernist poem. In Romanticism what we need is the allegory, what we need is the sin and what we need is the actual gamble, whereas in Modernism it’s all about suspending.


T.MC.

Yes, and this is also what Beckett is all about. The event can’t happen and if it did that would be redemption: “We’ll be saved, if he just turns up we’ll be saved.” But Godot doesn’t turn up and they just re-enact the interval again and again while it gets bigger and worse—in Endgame even the clock is breaking.


Audience

I’ll give you another text and I also have a question. Another text would simply be Frankenstein. The whole of the Frankenstein novel takes place because they’re locked in ice. So the waiting time, which is the frame narrative, is in fact also the writing time and the narration time.


T.MC.

Yes, he writes to kill time because he’s bored; he’s stuck in ice. I’ve always thought that Frankenstein is actually a novel about incest. It’s about machine culture and incest.


Audience

I think it’s about many things.


T.MC.

Principally I’m convinced this is what’s going on in that book. Byron gives his maiden speech in parliament in defense of the machine breakers—the Luddites—who were all being put out of work by computers basically, by knitting machines. It’s a capital offense to break a machine in England at this point and Byron, a hereditary peer, stands up and says, “these guys are great.” And he’s also having an affair with his half sister and scandalizing everyone and he turns up on lake Geneva. And in the book, Walter, who is stuck in ice, is writing to his sister and Frankenstein the inventor is meant to marry his kind-of sister. The monster kills the sister after the wedding, but before they’ve consummated it. So the monster is “good” there: he’s being the superego and stopping the true horror of incest from taking place. But then the monster turns up and says to him that Frankenstein has to make him (the monster) a sister that he can marry and procreate with. And while Frankenstein is making a sister-monster, he becomes so appalled by the possibility of incest that he literally rips the female monster apart. There’s a brilliant Warhol–Morrissey reprise of that in the film Flesh for Frankenstein where, at that moment, the inventor gets sexually aroused and has sex with the female monster through a wound where he’s just sewn all the organs in. Then he turns to his Hollywood-cliché assistant with the hunchback and says, “to know death, Otto, you must fuck life in the gall bladder.”


Audience

To come back to my question: you talk about the political, you talk about the aesthetic, you emphasize yourself that most of the texts you’ve invoked are high Modernist and we’re playing some Romantic texts into this discussion as well. I’m curious to know in what way your interest in this question of suspended time with the interval—perhaps that’s the moment of the real—fits into where we are right now. I’m thinking of Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7 and of this idea that as people living we are constantly awake. No one ever sleeps and everyone is exhausted because precisely the moment you are talking about, the idea of suspended time with intervals of an in-between and the idea of pausing, is something that our culture is almost destructive of at the moment. So is this—your talk—nostalgia?


T.MC.

No, this is an archeology of the present. Like I said just after you introduced me, I’ve become obsessed with buffering—or the narrator in my new novel is obsessed with buffering. He’s an anthropologist who has grown up reading Lévi-Strauss but he’s also a corporate anthropologist who is working for the Man. He’s putting culture in the service of capital. Like we all do, he spends most of his life staring at a screen, and he frequently encounters bouts of buffering. And the first thought he has is that this is not ultimately a technological situation, it’s a theological situation. Behind that little circle spinning on your laptop there’s this belief that somewhere in Uzbekistan, Nevada or Finland there are many Über-servers with satellite dishes generating and sending out data. “Data” means gift and these servers are gifting all this data to you in this unconditional act of endless generosity and data angels are dancing on the pinhead of your Wi-Fi. And this places you inside the universe of information and effectively of Being, but it’s also incredibly anxious because you haven’t got it yet; it’s coming. Then the narrator has this almost Nietzschean counter-thought, which is: what if it’s just a circle and nothing else? What if there is no connection or the connection was never there? What if it’s just a stupid little circle and there are no angels? Also, when you’re watching YouTube, you’ve got that grey line which shows the buffering in advance and the red line with the cursor which shows where you’ve actually got to and if the red catches up with grey, buffering kicks in. And this is also what my novel Remainder is about in a way: this décalage of experience needing to stay ahead, if only by a nose, of consciousness of experience. It’s a narrative thing: the red line has to render the grey data, and this is narrative and consciousness, but if the two catch up with each other, then you’re in this buffered moment where you can enjoy neither experience nor consciousness of experience; it’s a narrative breakdown. So we can say this is modern or postmodern, but in a way this is also what Hamlet and Don Quixote are about. Don Quixote is trying to buffer his actions with cultural data. He’s reading all these penny novels so that he can actually consume them and render them as experiences by re-enacting their moments, but he keeps running out of buffer space. And in Hamlet there are these continual connection drops and interruptions and interferences. This is why when you read Mallarmé now in the age of Edward Snowden and he talks about everything existing to become part of “The Book” and everything becoming legible, it seems to be incredibly contemporary. I don’t want to reduce it just to the internet because it was more complex than that, but it definitely seems incredibly contemporary—even though Mallarmé says there is no such thing as “the contemporary.”


Audience

I would like to know how important this moment of interruption is in the process of writing for you as a writer. If you read Mallarmé and Blanchot, for them it’s so important that the moment of writing itself is the moment of interruption. When you write about the flower, you’re killing the flower in writing it. And this is a kind of interruption which exactly corresponds to what you said about fiction, because that’s the moment where the fiction starts. So for you as a writer, is this especially interesting because you are writing and because you’re in this interruption all the time?


T.MC.

Yes, I think it is. You hear these famous writers saying that they have to turn the internet off if they want to write and that the distraction introduced by our technological media is all bad, but I just think it’s wonderful: this drifting around Wikipedia where you start looking up Mallarmé (for example), and you end up on a page about artichokes or some South Pacific island five slips-sideways later. In a way these continual interruptions are a very productive thing. With Blanchot it’s a bit more complex. In The Writing of the Disaster he talks about how absurd it is to even want to write because writing is the suspended beat where the disaster marks its time interval or its trauma. So writing is this kind of not writing. Writing is the thing that makes writing impossible. He says the same thing in The Gaze of Orpheus, or perhaps the same thing from the other way round: in order to write you have to be already writing. The space of writing can only be approached not by taking up a pen and writing, but by having already done that. It’s this weird double negative which doesn’t quite make a positive, it makes a triple negative somehow.


Audience

The figure of the terrorist crops up a lot in Conrad; and in fact you did an art project where you re-made the attack on the Greenwich Observatory in London that inspired The Secret Agent. When we speak of the figure of the terrorist around 1900, the attack is targeted less at state representation than at time, or more precisely the possibility of representing time. Disturbance doesn’t so much entail exchanging one concept for another, rather than showing up how how order is produced, and thus how order can be disturbed, how we can fall out of the symbolic order of things. This entails thinking about disturbance in a radical manner.


T.MC.

In the wake of September the 11th, quite a few cultural commentators revisited Conrad’s novel and said: this is the precedent; this is the first piece of symbolic terrorism. There are much better targets: the anarchist could have attacked parliament or he could have attacked the military, but he attacks the observatory, this building that has no strategic or actual power. It is purely symbolic: it symbolizes time. What is interesting about Greenwich is that zero degrees is entirely arbitrary. The equator has to be where the equator is because of the magnetic properties of the earth, its rotation and so on, but the longitudinal line could be anywhere. In fact, it used to be in Paris and then London wrested it off them in a political coup in 1880 or so. And if you go there, the zero degree line is actually written or cut into the ground; it is a mark: it is fiction. So I love this idea that the dominant order of time is already a fiction, and Conrad is drawn to it because it offers the chance of opening up another temporal, and political, and aesthetic mode, a vanguard one. In fact, one of the anarchist magazines of the time was called L’Avant Guarde. The attempt to blow up the observatory was an avant-garde attack on one fiction in the name of another set of fictions, which would not even replace it but purely disrupt it. So many of the literary and visual art players of that era were bomb throwers or sympathizers: from Pissarro to Anatole France to Claudel, all the post-impressionists, the Rosetti sisters, Ford Maddox Ford and Félix Fénéon. And of course Conrad is one of the pioneers of temporal dislocation in prose—prolepses, analepses, temporal jumps and loops—and even of a proto-William Burroughs kind of cut-up. The end of The Secret Agent ends with newspapers being cut as Winnie is going mad after she has murdered her husband; it samples all these papers and jumps forwards and backwards. So I see this as being intimately linked to a literary moment, and a political one; but not the type of political–literary moment that someone like Brecht or Raymond Williams might recognize. When Sartre told people like Bataille they should side with the Communists and replace bad power with good power, Bataille said he was not interested in that, the stakes were much bigger: he was interested in the replacement or the ousting of God.


Audience

The word “wait,” of course, also evokes the word for the color white. At issue in Conrad’s Nigger of the Narcissus is that you can’t fake blackness. The hiatus becomes the thing itself; faking coughing turns into a real cough. This goes back to a well-known psychoanalytic point regarding simulation. Even if you are simulating a symptom you still suffer from the consequences of having this symptom.


T.MC.

I completely agree. I had never thought of the Wait–white elision, but I think it makes complete sense because Conrad is very attuned to—in an almost photographic sense—the idea of negative: the black, the white. Think of the end of Heart of Darkness, which is so much about race as well obviously: the blackness of the Africans, the whiteness of the ivory, and then you get this woman’s forehead which is white with Europe’s faith and blackness is coming all around it. We can think of photography itself, if we think of it in its old analog sense, as both a temporal intervention, a way of taking a bit of time away, but also as doing this by putting it into the negative: negativizing at the material level. Mallarmé as well is obsessed with this: the white stars of Un Coup de Des are negatively in the gulf of the page, represented as black dots. But I agree, white is spot on.


Audience

Regarding your discussion, at issue is not the possibility or impossibility of representing disaster and trauma but rather speaking from a moment of disaster. The disturbance at play does not so much involve the object as the space from which we can talk about disaster.


T.MC.

Exactly right: talking from rather than about—with the proviso that of course you cannot speak from that place; there is an impossibility. This is Freud’s point: the moment of trauma is the one thing that eludes representation; the one thing that cannot be represented is the event. This is the same in Badiou or Mallarmé. As Blanchot says in The Writing of the Disaster, the event creates the entire field of the symbolic and yet, within the symbolic, it cannot itself have a place. I think that is an overwhelming paradox that really significant literature grapples with and tries to speak from that place—which it cannot, but it tries anyhow.


Audience

The examples you gave for this recessional time were mainly waiting for one’s own death or being dead already, but something that struck me about this mode of recessional time is that it is an interruption but it is in a certain way limited. What you have in Modernity, for instance in Beckett, is these phases of waiting for something but the wait will never end. The good thing about the recession is that at least it is in some way limited. But then you have these marks of time where you cannot say: is it now or is it infinity? Have you already gotten behind the end, like in Endgame or in Waiting for Godot? In Beckett you have this idea of being in between something but it might never end: we are in a limbo; the recession might last forever.


T.MC.

It’s true: in Conrad you get the recession opening up and then it gets closed down again, so after Marlow has told his abyssal story in Heart of Darkness the manager snaps them all back into productive work; or in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying they bury Addie, they get her in the ground and then Anse just marries another woman, the very same woman he borrowed the spade from to dig Addie’s grave—there is this recessional space but it is somehow contained. I guess that what Beckett is doing is just homing right in on that hiatus and making that the entire temporal field, and building a whole ethics there. “Was I sleeping while the others suffered?” is what Vladimir says when he looks at Estragon lying in the ditch. So I agree about Beckett; it is a really interesting point: it is never going to end. Perhaps that is why I did not really talk about Beckett. In a way Beckett would be the obvious person to think about when you think about waiting or a hiatus or a pause, and yet I didn’t feel like I should include him in this because I think that something different is going on in Beckett.


Audience

Is the disturbance we find in Beckett’s Happy Days a different type of disturbance then?


T.MC.

Happy Days is really interesting. This is a late Beckett play that starts with a flash and in the first draft Beckett had made it quite clear this was a nuclear bomb and the world was ending, but then in the final version he just cut any real reference to the world, so it is just a flash. Then you see a woman up to her waist in sand, Winnie, with her husband Willie attending to her; and in the second act she is up to her neck in sand—and there is not a third act. Winnie goes though a set of gestures: she opens her handbag and takes out a mirror, a toothbrush and a gun and she smashes the mirror and says “every day I do exactly this: I take out the gun, I take out the toothbrush, I take out the mirror, I smash it. Tomorrow it will be back again and I will do it again.” But in fact she is not actually right, because when she takes out the mirror the second time, it is not the same as the first time: she is re-enacting. If we all come back here tomorrow and sit exactly where we are sitting and say exactly what we are saying, it is not the same as now; we are re-enacting and if we do it the next day we are re-enacting a re-enactment—it becomes an accordion or bed-spring. So there is a kind of archiving and that is one kind of temporality going on in this play. Then a second thing is that there is the possibility of an escape in that play because of the gun; this Chekhovian gun that comes out. At the end of the play you see Willie crawling towards her with the gun and you do not know whether he is going to kill her or himself and end it—or not. That would be another type of interruption: an interruption to the pause that would finally bring about finitude. So I think in that play both are forms of terror: infinite hiatus is one form or horror and finitude itself would be another type of horror or violence. He leaves us suspended; a third hiatus between those two states of hiatus opens up. This is different from Godot because in Godot they kind of meet a resolution: they just know Godot is not going to come but at least they ask the page boy can tell him they were here—there is a Levinasian demand to be acknowledged. But Happy Days is more sophisticated in a way—and more horrifying.


Audience

What does recuperation entail after the rupture, which in your discussion recessional time involves?


T.MC.

I think there is a continuity between something like Hamlet—the out-of-jointness of time in that play and the re-enactments (he re-enacts his father’s death and that is what causes the court to implode)—and Modernism and High Modernism and these other figures like Pynchon or Kathy Acker or Burroughs. But in terms of the politics of it all, I think it is very difficult to say that interruption is subversive—it is, but it gets recuperated. The punch line at the end of The Magic Mountain is that you get all this time off, homing in on death; and then it ends, the work of the world resumes—and what is the work of the world? Death. Hans Castorp recovers, steps out into World War I and is immediately blown to pieces. He survived for that? It is like a sick joke. So buffering is fascinating because everything stops, that circle spins, you get extremely anxious because that airline ticket you are buying is going to cost 200 euros more when it comes back, or maybe even the airline has just gone out of business, or your bank has crashed, or the server itself has blown up—so the entire time of the world and of your subjective agency is put on hold: there is a suspension. In the Nineties sometimes you would be watching cable TV in a hotel and it suddenly stopped and you thought: has a bomb just gone off in the studio? Has there been a revolution or is my plug not working? There is that sense of anything becoming possible. So that has very disruptive potential; but at the same time, if we want to get blatantly political, capitalism can recuperate everything. This is also what Naptha says to Hans Castorp. Capitalism contains reserves and generates a profit from precisely those moments of interruption, which is interest. This is what The Merchant of Venice is about as well. Even those pauses somehow get recuperated; but nonetheless it is interesting when another way, another rupture opens up.


Audience

How would you connect your discussion of recessional time with the violence that a philosopher like Badiou connects with what he calls the event?


T.MC.

I think that in “Action Restrained” Mallarmé does seem to elide and to blur the political and the aesthetic. For him, it doesn’t seem like you can separate them out into different fields; and yet interestingly, while all his friends were running around throwing bombs, he did not. I think “Action Restrained” is almost his apologia for not being a card-carrying anarchist at the time. There is this sense of deferral and imminence and to-come-ness. Everything in Mallarmé is to come and that is what Derrida loves: democracy to come, the book to come—but it is not now. But also when he says “an event I have yet to name”—“j’ai toujours à nommer”—it has the double sense of “I have not yet named the event” or “I am always having to name it, I am always only talking about that”; everything is the event and its imminence. It is very double-edged.

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Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy

is a British novelist and artist based in London. McCarthy operates as »General Secretary« of a semi-fictitious organisation called the »International Necronautical Society« (INS). He also published a number of essays and short stories. With his debut novel Remainder (8 ½ Millionen) he was awarded the Believer Book Award in 2008. His novel C was shortlisted for the 2010 Men's Booker Prize.

Other texts by Tom McCarthy for DIAPHANES
Tom McCarthy: Recessional—Or, the Time of the Hammer

In this essay, based on a talk he gave in Zurich, award-winning British novelist Tom McCarthy ("Remainder", "C", "Satin Island") unearthes a pattern, a rationale that is working both in and against the canon of modern(ist) literature, of authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Maurice Blanchot, Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce and William Faulkner. McCarthy tackles a specific obsession with time that haunts their works; a time that is marked by arrest, pause, suspension, interval, eternal moments, tool-downage, waiting. Recessional time, as it were. Time-out-of-time. This is precisely that time (or tense) of fiction that is central to Tom McCarthy's own writing. The essay is followed by a conversation with the author in which he discusses his own practice of writing.