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Is the future over?

Radical author Tom McCarthy has spent a career writing extreme stories about our age of crisis. So why does talk of the future leave him cold?

Tom McCarthy’s debut novel Remainder was initially put out by a Parisian art publisher in an edition of just 750. As it gradually got picked up by increasingly huge-deal publishers in London, New York and all over the world, its critical reception snowballed into an avalanche of gushing respect. People like Zadie Smith said it was “One of the greatest English novels of the last ten years;” stuff like that, and this year will see Remainder’s fresh incarnation as cool, arty film directed by cool, arty filmmaker Omer Fast.

McCarthy’s third novel Satin Island also just came out, and it already seems set on a similar path to capital-G Greatness; it is dead-clever, very funny, insanely ambitious, sometimes insane, essentially brilliant and commendably engaged with the way we’re living our lives right now. Alongside our exclusive transmission of a film commissioned by McCarthy and made by Belgian artist artist Johan Grimonprez, featuring the author reading from Satin Island and archive footage from the Zapomatik studio in Belgium, Dazed talked to Tom in London about where we are and where we’re going:

We’re always somewhere else now. The action is always between locations. Much of Satin Island takes place in London, but it’s not really about British culture at all. One of the lines in it - that I took from Rem Koolhaus – is; “Location is irrelevant, what matters is not where somewhere is, but rather, where it leads.” I think this is so important in our totally networked, totally globalized world. Where you actually are doesn’t really matter anymore, at least in our developed, elite parts of the world. In London, New York, Sao Paolo, Oslo, people are Skyping with people in Oslo, Sao Paolo, New York, or London. Everything is happening ‘in between,’ everything is in relay. I think lots of what I was trying to do in Satin Island was to kind of map that space of ‘in between-ness,’ that interim space, that space of endless relays and networks, rather than trying to ‘capture the soul’ of a particular location.

One of the things I’m really interested in is this question of ‘the digital,’ and the ‘becoming automatic’ of writing, but also the automatization of reading. So in Satin Island, the hero - an anthropologist who’s meant to be writing this ‘Great Report,’ mapping our networks of kinship - he realizes that every time you go on Facebook, or on Amazon, then that mapping has already automatically been done. What you’re buying is being correlated with other people who you know and what they like and who they know, and so on and so on. So the networks of kinship are being mapped not by anthropologists but by software, and in fact so is every single thing we do; every time we walk down the street, just because we’ve got an iPhone in our pocket, that’s all already notated. Every keystroke we make is archived. This has huge political implications, as well as aesthetic ones.

“Satin Island is a theological book: it’s about looking at the veil of information, and media, and waiting for that revelation, that grace, which would be ‘meaning’” – Tom McCarthy

The point is, ‘The Book,’ the ‘Great Report;’ it’s already been written. And who or what can even read that book? I mean; the NSA has it, but they can’t even read it! Even software can’t read it. The NSA, famously, had all the information they needed to prevent September 11th. I mean; they had it, but it was just illegible to them. They didn’t have the software that could read it. They had all the meta-data: the phone calls, the bank transactions, the affiliations. That stuff was in their data-banks: all those people and their communications, and the series of events that led up to the attacks; all that data, they had it, but they couldn’t parse it. It becomes almost theological. George Herbert, the metaphysical poet said “God’s word is all, if we could spell,” meaning ‘if we could read.’ Satin Island is a theological book: it’s about looking at the veil of information, and media, and waiting for that revelation, that grace, which would be ‘meaning.’ That abundance; the godhead of meaning.

Talk of the future leaves me cold. I’m just not that into it. I think the future is a kind of neoliberal narrative that lots of supposedly critical thought actually just conspires with, quite compliantly. I think that if we want to understand the Edward Snowden case, we should read Hamlet. It’s all there: everything to do with state power, surveillance, the state scanning of private correspondence, it’s all in there. And what’s really interesting about the stuff that’s going on now with digital culture is that it places the act of writing, and of reading, right at the centre of public life, and of private life, and of political life. It becomes a literary problem. And so I think to understand that we have to look at the history of literature, which is incredibly current.

If you look back at the whole history of western literature, it more or less begins with an account of transmission and textology and signals crossing space, in Aeschylus, in the Oresteia: the signal beacons from Troy, the whole network of beacons, that’s the very first thing that’s laid out in that play: the grid, the communication vectors. And I just don’t think that there’s anything radically new, categorically new about what’s happening now with the internet. It’s just being staged in a way that is new, and that we have to come to terms with. 

“What is truly political in a subversive sense is letting the past erupt in the present and kind of destabilize it” – Tom McCarthy 

What is truly political in a subversive sense is letting the past erupt in the present and kind of destabilize it. It shouldn’t be about the future, it should be about the fragments of the past coming back and staking their claim. Just like in Hamlet. What brings down the state? It’s the ghost, and its eruption in the present. So I think we should have a politics without future. It’s what the punks were about, isn’t it? It’s quite an interesting idea. It’s a much more radical politics.

The General Election seems to be a choice between the psycho version of neoliberalism and the slightly muffled psycho version of neoliberalism. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some movement like Syriza here? That’s what we need. We need a funky minister of culture, dressed by Dazed, basically. 

As told to Stuart Hammond