Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Information as matter": the New Materialism and Tom McCarthy's 'Remainder'

            I love it when my theoretical interests intersect at a fictional crossroads. 
Some of my readers may recall the enigmatic quote from M. John Harrison’s Light that I used to open my piece on that text: “‘Information might be a substance” (Harrison 357).  One of the continual themes, or tropes, of science fiction that I enjoy pursuing is the suggestion that information, the ideal, or the ideational, is nothing more than a complex emergent consequence of highly developed matter.  This raises a number of troubling questions: what becomes of the interior “self”? what becomes of intention? what becomes of emotions, sensations that we take to be “ours”? where do we draw the line between the conscious and non-conscious, between the organic and the inorganic?  All these queries can be traced back to this unconventional notion that somehow all things once believed essential – our ideas, our emotions, our very selves – are illusions ultimately propagated by dead matter.  After all, human beings themselves eventually emerged out of previous organisms, which in turn emerged out of advanced combinations of cells, which in turn surged violently to life out of entirely inanimate and inorganic matter.
            I recently finished another fictional text, not one that has been viewed through an SF lens, but one that deserves such attention: Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.  As I excitedly read through the entire novel, I was aware of something akin to an SF tone, or at the very least an unsettling contemporary Gothicism.  The story depicts an unnamed narrator who, having suffered a mysterious accident, receives a generous settlement that allows him to pursue his pathological fantasy of reconstructing various sites from his memory; as the story develops, these reconstructions begin to appropriate events from the news and gradually take on a less “simulated” character.  The strange narrative, its abstract quality and vague descriptive tone (which gets specific about specifics – the small details – but leaves larger questions unanswered), its blatantly unreliable narrator who admittedly misleads his audience on occasion – none of these elements point directly to the mode of “science fiction.”  There are no obvious identifiable SF elements in the novel.  Rather, the tone that intrigues me and leads me to associate Remainder with contemporary SF is its sense of unrealism, or unreality.  As readers follow the anonymous narrator, they question how he can continue to direct these reconstructions.  His endless supply of funds is apparently supported by an investment in the stock market; but this does not solve how he is actually able to appropriate the massive locations he requires and reenact the increasingly controversial events he finds himself obsessed with.  The novel’s unrealism persists throughout, ultimately never offering much in the way of explanation.
What the novel does offer, however, near its conclusion, is a brief line that recalled the words of M. John Harrison to my mind: “We had to treat information as matter: stop it spilling, seeping, trickling, dribbling, whatever: getting in the wrong place and becoming mess” (265 McCarthy).  One need not stretch one’s mind to recall the “spilling” of matter in Harrison’s Light, when Kearney returns to the lab where he and Brian Tate run their experiments: “He was expecting to see the female [cat], and indeed, there was a whitish flicker down near his feet; but it wasn’t a cat.  It was a quiet spill of light, emerging like fluid from one of the ruptured displays and licking out across the floor towards Kearney’s feet” (180).  What is this obsession with matter, with substance, in both Harrison’s Light and McCarthy’s Remainder?  Why this emphasis on the redefinition of thought, of ideas, of information as matter?  What do these two works have in common (and what, in turn, does this commonality reveal about Remainder’s science-fiction-ality)?  Since Light already occupies a place on this blog (although one can never write enough about Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract novels, in my opinion), I will turn my attention primarily to McCarthy’s novel.  In doing so, I hope not only to reveal some of the SF elements at work in the novel (which might contribute to its deployment of the “science fiction mode”), but also to discuss what I perceive as an important reversal, or turn, in speculative fiction over the past several years.
            I would classify Remainder as speculative fiction.  More specifically, I would classify it as "slipstream."  Slipstream is an odd generic mode,[1] one that often combines more “realistic” strands of fiction with those that are less mainstream, such as science fiction or fantasy.  Even the description should be jarring: traditional realism blending with traditionally unrealistic forms of fiction.  The result is, understandably so, unsettling, and Remainder works remarkably toward securing this reaction among its readers.  The narrator has no name.  His accident remains largely a mystery.  Readers are told something about being buffeted by winds and something falling from the sky: “It involved something falling from the sky.  Technology.  Parts, bits.  That’s it, really: all I can divulge.  Not much, I know” (McCarthy 3).  All textual clues suggest that the narrator suffers from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; but he is never hospitalized.  Even as his conditions worsens, resulting in intermittent catatonic states, he is never treated.  A doctor sees him, but the doctor’s warnings go unheeded.
Behind all this, consistently supporting the narrator’s reconstructions and isolating him from medical treatment, is the mysterious company known as Time Control.  Time Control organizes and maintains the narrator’s reconstructions, finding him the reenactors and sets that he requires, and consistently evolving to accommodate his new fantastical requirements.  Presumably, the company does what its name suggests: manages people’s time.  The narrator’s attorney, Mark Daubenay, explains: “‘They’re a company that sort things out for people.  Manage things.  Facilitators, as it were.  A couple of my clients have used them in the past and sent back glowing reports.  They’re the leaders in their field.  In fact, they are their field” (81).  Not much more is revealed about the enigmatic company; but a brief comment later in the novel, made by a Time Control employee to the doctor that treats the narrator, suggests that their role is far more involved than readers are led to believe.  When the doctor adamantly demands that the reenactments cease, the employee says it is “‘out of the question.’”  He goes on to offer an intriguing summary of his, and the doctor’s, roles: “‘You, like me, have been hired to ensure he can continue to pursue his projects’” (233).  The comment may mean nothing more than that they were hired by the narrator to facilitate his projects; but what role does the doctor play in this?  Why does the company have no control over treating the narrator, or stopping his reenactments if they run out of control?  Some readers might be inclined to think a larger, more conspiratorial project is at play, of which the narrator is only a part, and that is somehow performing tests, or experiments on him (this was one of my own thoughts); but it remains rather useless to entertain such a notion beyond simple fancy.  No other evidence is given, and beyond this point the narrative begins to spiral hopelessly beyond any last remnants of realism.  If there is a larger plan at work, it is not the novel’s concern.
McCarthy’s novel cannot be properly assessed without considering Zadie Smith’s fantastic write-up in The New York Review of Books.  Smith identifies two paths for the modern novel, one of which manifests in Remainder; a text that, Smith claims, “works by accumulation and repetition, closing in on its subject in ever-decreasing revolutions, like a trauma victim circling the blank horror of the traumatic event” (Smith).  The repetition involves an attempt to isolate and grasp a continually elusive surplus that bewilders and excites the narrator, as when he realizes that his car is low on windshield wiper fluid, and after having the reservoir filled, notices that the liquid has miraculously vanished: “They’d vaporized, evaporated.  And do you know what?  It felt wonderful.  Don’t ask me why: it just did.  It was as though I’d just witnessed a miracle: matter – these two litres [sic] of liquid – becoming un-matter – not surplus matter, mess or clutter, but pure, bodiless blueness.  Transubstantiated” (171).  In Smith’s own words, Remainder “turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism – it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel” (Smith).  McCarthy identifies this concern at the close of the novel’s first chapter: “I have, right to this day, a photographically clear memory of standing on the concourse looking at my stained sleeve, at the grease – this messy, irksome matter that had no respect for millions, didn’t know its place.  My undoing: matter” (McCarthy 17).
In his book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, Slavoj Žižek opens by introducing an ideological antagonism: this antagonism is “not […] the struggle between idealism and materialism, but […] the struggle between two forms of materialism (democratic and dialectical)” (Žižek 42).  As a proponent of the latter, Žižek upholds the “‘Platonic’ (‘idealist’) dimension of ‘eternal’ truths,” which dialectical materialism adds to its critical quest (42).  Dialectical materialism arrives at this ideal component via a complicated circuitry of its thought process, but it must be maintained that the idealist dimension is still an emergent result of the material itself.  The idealism of truth does not exist externally to the material, grounding its influence and meaning.  Rather, for Žižek and other materialists in this vein, the material grounds the ideal; that is, the ideal operates as a consequence of materialist movement.  This is what Žižek means when he writes that “the distinction between appearance and essence has to be inscribed into appearance itself” (37).  The idealism of truths distinguishes itself as a gap in the field, a fissure in the material that materialism cannot account for but nonetheless produces by its own movement.  The absolute absence, the eternal vacancy – the place for truth is not a predetermined or pristine essence, but a category produced as an effect of matter.
The narrator of Remainder obsesses over this missing leftover, this surplus, and his obsession haunts the narrative.  Early on, when celebrating his newfound fortune with a bottle of champagne, a stranger approaches the narrator and asks: “‘Where does it all go?’” When the narrator’s friend, Greg, replies that they drink it, the stranger responds: “‘No.  I don’t mean just that […] I mean everything.  You people don’t think about these things.  Give me a glass of that stuff’” (36).  A few pages later, the narrator rescinds his previous desire to sleep with a female friend that is visiting him: “I had to pull the sofa in the living room out into a bed for her.  It was fiddly, finicky: you had to hook this bit round that bit while keeping a third bit clear.  I hadn’t done it before we went out – deliberately, in case the extra bed wouldn’t be needed.  But it was needed.  Catherine had already begun to annoy me.  I preferred her absence, her spectre” (39).  Catherine’s absence, her “spectre,” is the ideational image that the narrator possessed of her prior to her arrival, when he still fantasized about having sex with her.  However, after she arrives, this image is revealed as fantasy, as imaginary.  It is not some pristine essence of her that she fails to fulfill.  It is the ideal essence that the narrator fantasizes from her actual existence, her materiality.  The narrator thus obsesses over this lost essence, this remainder; but unlike the mystics and fideists of the past, he possesses a knowledge of the creative source of this essence.  He knows that the surplus, the essence, emerges from matter itself.  What escapes his knowledge is that this essence is a fantasy.  This is why he pursues his pathological desire to rebuild scenes from memory, to reenact the events he experiences or reads about.  He desires to attain, and to become, the surplus matter that transubstantiates into the ether.
To better understand the implications of this “fantasy,” I quote cultural critic Steven Shaviro: “it is, you might say, an objective illusion, which is to say a fantasy.  It is a fantasy that, qua fantasy, actually operates in the world” (Shaviro 114).  Shaviro specifically speaks of this definition of fantasy in reference to financial derivatives; the fantasy, he claims, lies in the apparent “autonomy of derivatives and financial markets” (114).  This autonomy emerges as a kind of surplus; it does not actually exist – markets and derivatives are not truly autonomous.  But in the complex world of financial abstraction, they appear as such.  When Remainder’s narrator meets with Matthew Younger, a stockbroker, Younger explains speculation to his new client:
“Shares are constantly being bought and sold […] The prices aren’t fixed: they change depending on what people are prepared to pay for them.  When people buy shares, they don’t value them by what they actually represent in terms of goods or services: they value them by what they might be worth, in an imaginary future […] By the time one future’s there, there’s another one being imagined.  The collective imagination of all the investors keeps projecting futures, keeping the shares buoyant.” (McCarthy 46)

Abstract value appears to operate separately from material conditions; it takes on a life of its own and proliferates in its own environment.  For this reason, globalism and finance capital have been popular themes for SF writers since the ‘80s, with writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and (later) Charles Stross and even M. John Harrison attempting to represent, or capture the effects of, massive multinational corporations and global (or interstellar) financial markets.  The autonomy of the market has become a kind of SF trope, and its influence can be felt in Remainder even while the latter is not specifically science fiction.  The key word in Remainder is “speculation”: speculative investment, speculative fiction, the speculative turn in continental philosophy, and now the “speculative” materialism of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.
            This emphasis, evident in both McCarthy’s novel and in the work of Harrison, marks a turn in literary studies.  Traditionally, forms of “speculative” fiction – science fiction, fantasy, Gothic, slipstream – operated under a technique of non-realism, or unrealism.  This is not to say that Tom McCarthy’s novel should be read as a realist novel; it most certainly is not.  But it is an important installment in a new trend that attempts to locate a more radical form of the real.  I have called this trend, in previous pieces, “brutal realism.”  This style is not similar to traditional lyrical realism of the 19th century, or historical or psychological realism, all of which operate (to some extent) under the rubric of an ideological normativity.  The new realist push of Harrison, McCarthy, and other “brutal realists” is not in relation to traditional literary realism, but in contrast to traditional philosophical idealism.  It is a literary attempt to understand how the ideal appears because of the material.  These writers want to expose the ideal not as an isolated, essential source of the material; but as an emergent effect of matter itself.  In this way, modern speculative fiction entirely reverses the stereotype that it is concerned with the supernatural, the essential, or the ideal, as pure and pristine; as a mystery that needs to be solved, as an original point of mystical knowledge.  Instead, modern speculative fiction takes the material as its primary concern in order to expose it as the source of the ideal.  The mysterious essence, the unknown origin, the hidden source… the surplus, the remainder, is not a mystery or origin at all.  It is an illusion projected by the complex interactions of matter.  The material creates the categories from which it sees itself as derived.  This is the great paradox, the incredible post-postmodern turn: that matter injects the ideal into itself as an absence, a void that it tries to fill.  A remainder.

Works Cited
Harrison, M. John. Light. New York: Bantam Books, 2007. Print.
McCarthy, Tom. Remainder. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.
Shaviro, Steven. "The Singularity is Here." Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Mark 
            Bould and China Miéville, eds. Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 2009. 103-117. Print.
Smith, Zadie. “Two Paths for the Novel.” The New York Review of Books. 20 Nov. 2008.
Web. 16 Mar. 2013.
Žižek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.
London: Verso, 2012. Print.

[1] I intend the word “mode” in a sense similar to that of Robert Mighall in his book A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping Histories Nightmares, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999: “Throughout, the Gothic will be referred to as a ‘mode’ rather than a genre, the principle defining structure of which is its attitude to the past” (xix).  I likewise intend “mode” specifically as a text’s temporal relationship to history; however, in the case of science fiction and slipstream, this relationship is constituted not by the mode’s attitude solely toward its past, but also toward its future.

No comments:

Post a Comment