5. The INS rejects the Enlightenment’s version of time: of time as progress, a line growing stronger and clearer as it runs from past to future. This version is tied into a narrative of transcendence: in the Hegelian system, of Aufhebung, in which thought and matter ascend to the realm of spirit as the projects of philosophy and art perfect themselves. Against this totalizing (we would say, totalitarian) idealist vision, we pit counter-Hegelians like Georges Bataille, who inverts this upward movement, miring spirit in the trough of base materialism. Or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who, hearing the moronic poet Russel claim that “art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences,” pictures Platonists crawling through Blake’s buttocks to eternity, and silently retorts: “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”
6. To phrase it in more directly political terms: the INS rejects the idea of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of dominant socioeconomic narratives of progress. As our Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley has recently argued, the neoliberal versions of capitalism and democracy present themselves as an inevitability, a destiny to whom the future belongs. We resist this ideology of the future, in the name of the sheer radical potentiality of the past, and of the way the past can shape the creative impulses and imaginative landscape of the present. The future of thinking is its past, a thinking which turns its back on the future.
7. As Walter Benjamin correctly notes in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” contemplating Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus—a floating figure who stares intently at something he’s moving away from—the angel of history faces backward. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” writes Benjamin, “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” What we call progress, Benjamin calls “the storm.”I'll begin this post by announcing, rather arrogantly, that I've never read any of Tom McCarthy's novels and have no near-future plans to do so; there're still a lot of Iain Banks books on my Kindle to get through. I'm not very au courant with the literary world, so I only found out about McCarthy's apparently revolutionary intervention into the discourse of realism by reading the long N+1 review of his latest book. I've only subscribed to the magazine recently, and I've found it makes good breakfast reading: I'm at my most charitable when I can feel myself gradually returning to consciousness and good humor. So reading about McCarthy at breakfast might have been a mistake. The reviewer--Yale professor Amanda Claybaugh--was just sardonic enough that the outline of the man behind the curtain came off as shabby and ridiculous, but she left enough to the imagination that I could feel my rejection of McCarthy's posturing to be a well-deserved piece of morning enlightenment.
- Tom McCarthy, "Declaration on the Notion of 'The Future'," The Believer, November/December 2010
I've glanced around McCarthy's various manifestoes, though, and they haven't done much to disabuse me of my smug sense of second-hand competence. Just like the review promised, they were full of vaguely radical language and appeals to the French-theory classics. The International Necronautical Society would look much more like the cleverly tongue-in-cheek takeoff on the Situationist International it's clearly meant to evoke if it didn't look so much like a warmed-over ripoff. Is anything, at this point, more staid and traditional than quoting Benjamin's pithy take on Angelus Novus? I remember feeling like a majestic prophet when I read that bit aloud to my Drum-smoking bohemian buddies, but in my defense I was eighteen years old at the time and had no understanding of just how banal it was. (A Google Books exact-phrase search for the quoted part of the paragraph yields 762 results, with no false positives as far as I can tell. 762! And that doesn't include periodicals or works using other translations.) What's McCarthy's excuse?
OK, but mockery only gets us so far. The much more interesting question is this: why have "French theory" and its allies retained the aura of radicalism, nonconformity, and edginess that their intellectual contemporaries have now totally lost? After all, the '60s and '70s were full of proposals for world-changing intellectual shifts, and only later did many of them die off or become colonized by Theory. It is astounding to think that authors are still being described as "trendy" or "fashionable" when most of them have long since died of old age. But that can be chalked up to the poor communication between the world of academia and the world of popular intellectual debate. It seems far more relevant that actual people who are trying to be trendy and fashionable--and, as far as experimental literature goes, apparently succeeding--are still using Derrida and Blanchot as points of reference.
The most plausible explanation for this that I can come up with is that the various thinkers and schools of thought that have been characterized as belonging to Theory (and, in popular discourse, assigned to the even less meaningful category of "postmodernism") in fact represented the last stage in what still looked to be a coherent intellectual history of the West. There is a great irony in the fact that an array of thinkers who mostly tried to break down idealist genealogies and resisted the impulse to render the history of ideas monolithic and univocal ended up as the more-or-less indistinguishable last chapter in that history. At the same time, it's hard not to see the result as a predictable one. Of course whoever has the last word is going to be the person who insists on incoherence, since after her there exist only local possibilities for further development. (Maybe that's a little overdrawn.) (It's also worth pointing out somewhere that the characterization of Theory as the always-already latest fad to hit the ivory tower is very useful for people who dislike the academic humanities and wish they'd go away so funds can be spent somewhere else. Naturally such people cannot be expected to keep up with the latest special issue of PMLA.)
Things haven't ossified around Derrida, of course. Individual fields and specializations still have their own conversations, turns are constantly taking place, new kinds of approaches and subject matter are being proposed. Yet all of the candidates for a broad-front interdisciplinary turn--evo-psych, speculative realism, maybe even digital humanities to the extent that this exists as an idea--have resoundingly failed to catch on except as yet another intervention narrowly bounded in a discipline. Even within disciplines, individual subfields are rarely in sync with one another, and one subfield's methodological revolution is often the stodgy antiquarianism of the next. In the broader world of art and letters, as far as I can tell, newly-discovered epochal shifts are rarely tied to contemporary developments in academia.
Still, when Tom McCarthy wants a flag to wave, he reaches out for the flag of Theory. There must be something more to this than a radically misguided sense of what the latest trends are. Even the Onion, after all, was making jokes about deconstruction in the late '90s, and what could be more middlebrow than that? No, it seems like the answer lies somewhere else.
My sense is that, despite all his revolutionary sloganeering, McCarthy is actually operating from a deep-seated sense of nostalgia. The resurrection of the radicalism of Theory is in reality just a wistful recollection of the days when the liberal arts could be glanced at, dismissed, or revolutionized as a coherent whole. Benjamin, here, isn't playing the role of the unjustly forgotten critical savior. He's actually more like Longfellow, Stephen Crane, or Fenimore Cooper--authors who could once be cited as the bearers of a great and unified national tradition, before its fragmentation into warring subcultural cliques. The necrophiliac necronauts are rather more conservative than they think.