more on tom mccarthy and the international necronautical society

Symbolic Remainder

Tom McCarthy

Interviewed by Jeffrey Inaba

On behalf of the International Necronautical

Society, novelist Tom McCarthy and

philosopher Simon Critchley recently released

their ‘Interim Report on Recessional

Aesthetics’ to President Obama in the

pages of Harper’s Magazine. Among

their suggestions to the US leader was

to read the recession allegorically, as

‘the intimate space at the heart of all

economics, its muted truth’, and celebrate

it ‘as you would the revelation of godhead

itself ’. Volume spoke with McCarthy

about representing crisis and trauma –

whether assaults against the economy

or the body – and the death-driven

compulsion to repeat these moments of

intensity in seeking catharsis.

Jeffrey Inaba Can you explain the process of creating Remainder?

Tom McCarthy
Well, in a way the writing of the book

came about by happy accident. I was just passively looking

at a crack in the wall and had this moment of déjà vu

during which I remembered a similar room with a similar

crack. I remembered a building or I kind of half-remembered

– it was like the composite memory Proust describes

in which you can remember a staircase in a house that

never existed because you make a collage in your head from

other houses you’ve known – and I thought it would be

good to reconstruct this moment: to make the house and

to put the crack in the wall.

So that’s what happened in the book. The hero, or antihero,

starts by reconstructing a building he’s remembered.

And by making everyone – all of his neighbors who he’s

remembered – move to the rhythms he’s created as they

cook liver or play piano . Then he expands the parameters of
that reenactment zone until
he’s reenacting shoot-outs
in the street and bank heists.
By the end he’s making planes
fall out of the sky.

JI The hero/anti-hero of Remainder goes into a coma as a

result of an object falling from the sky and hitting him on

the head. How did you arrive at this device as a departure

point for the novel? Was it immediately apparent that this

was how the novel should start out?

No, initially I had to consider that if the hero’s going

to do all this stuff, he needs a lot of money to pay for it.

So he could win the lottery or inherit lots of money from

an uncle like the character Jean Des Esseintes in that

wonderful Huysmans novel Against Nature, which was

definitely an influence on Remainder, but I just wasn’t

convinced. Then I looked into compensation

culture, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and it perfectly

tarried with his whole reenactment

compulsion. For Freud, and for almost all psychologists,

trauma is always linked to repetition afterwards: the

reenactment and repetitive behavior. And so, yeah, it just

kind of made sense. The idea of something falling from

the sky is just straight Blanchot. One of the first things

he points out in The Writing of the Disaster is that

the word comes from ‘des astre’, literally, ‘from the stars’.

It’s the Fall. You can read that as the death of god, the

collapse of metaphysics or in a Newtonian way, in the

sense of gravity: things fall. And in Remainder you have

lots of things, not just airplane parts or bits of technology,

but also undisclosed matter and the share prices of stocks,

falling. He’s somehow reacting against this entropic

universe and trying to delay the inevitable, but of course

he ultimately fails.

He does get his memory back, but what’s lost is a sense of

authenticity. I conducted a long interview with someone

who’d been in a very serious accident resulting in motorneuron

damage and he had to relearn how to do everything

– from walking to lifting a glass.

And interestingly, he said ‘I can do it now, I can lift up

the glass and walk, but it seems fake. It seems like I’m

simulating.’ Warhol said the same thing after he was shot.

He said he felt like he was watching TV for the rest of

his life.

JI In this issue of Volume we think about how narratives of crisis are

told: what structures are employed to convey our experience of a world

in flux? It seems that Remainder is not about narrative per se, rather it’s

about constant confrontations with the elements of storytelling and in

particular the objects that percolate as confrontations within a larger

symbolic order.

Yeah, the character keeps on going on about a carrot

that won’t stay still. That’s a metonym for the whole

material world: this thing that cannot be controlled. And

I suppose, you know, objects are really important. They’re

always really important in Freud.

JI Remainder is about all of these encounters with

estranged objects. During moments of crisis, while we

might obsess over how we construct logical explanations

of the situation, it seems that crisis is really when

things can’t be explained. It’s when there’s a breakdown

of a given symbolic order. We question the relationship

between the things we experience in the world and the

way that the world is described. In that sense do you see

the post-traumatic reencountering of objects the protagonist

goes through as analogous to crisis moments?

Yes. He has to not only reprogram himself in

terms of kinetic stuff and movement, but it’s also about

movement and language. He has a large staff and he

keeps having them look up words in the dictionary and

text him the definitions. That informs his behavior.

By the end, he’s more or less killing people

because of dictionary definitions . So all of that is borne
out of crisis, out of catastrophe.
As he’s moving away
from the catastrophe he’s trying
to remaster the symbolic
order. But what for him is the
happy ending – the euphoric,
orgiastic ending – comes
not through resolution, but
through provoking an ultra
crisis. It’s when everything goes
wrong, spectacularly
wrong, when people are dying all
around him and planes
are crashing. At that moment,
everything comes together.
He’s at one with catastrophe.

Trauma studies report that only trauma is real. The trauma is

the moment-in-time. It’s always excluded from

Narratives and histories of time because it’s always censored:

the actual kernel of the disaster is always withheld

from consciousness or narratable memory. And yet it’s

the only moment which is true, which is real. Therefore

trauma victims often try to recover that moment, as if

it were some lost nirvana. The whole of Remainder is less

a movement away from – or resolution of – crisis than

it is an attempt to reenter crisis and retrigger it. In that respect

it’s successful. I mean, in the end, he gets

his disaster.

–from Volume Magazine

update from the international necronautical society!

Interim Report on Recessional Aesthetics







Official Document


Authorized: First Committee, INS

Authorization Code: TMcCSC140109


Document follows




We begin by congratulating the Obama Administration on commissioning this report from the INS. Turning to an organization whose thinking is steeped in literature, philosophy, and the arts in the hope of acquiring insight into the economic recession and suggestions as to how this hardship might be overcome may to some smack of desperation. Yet the INS commends the administration’s decision to do so as both courageous and enlightened. In (implicitly) acknowledging the critical role played by art in creating (and subverting) value, President Obama has, symbolically at least, righted the wrong done to the poet Seanchan in W. B. Yeats’s play The King’s Threshold. Seanchan is denied a place at the king’s table on the grounds that poetry does not constitute the “proper” business of state—to which he retorts

that the King’s money would not buy,

Nor the high circle consecrate his head,

If poets had never christened gold, and even

The moon’s poor daughter, that most whey-faced



Seanchan’s argument is incisive. As we hope to show, not only is art (as any second-rate Marxist literature professor will tell you) haunted by the language of economics, but economics is also haunted by art—that is, by aesthetic processes of creation, narration, speculation, value-generation, skillful condensation, occlusion, and just plain old lying. On behalf, therefore, of Seanchan and all the other barred poets in history for whom he stands, we accept the president’s invitation with a sense of entitlement and also with trepidation: the length of our spoon has yet to be determined. Below, then, we present four interim findings, which hint at the content of the full report, scheduled for delivery in April 2010.


1. I Owe Therefore I Am


It is the INS’s resolute conviction that there is not a single aspect of the current crisis that is not anticipated in The Merchant of Venice. For Shakespeare, credit is the economic judgment on the morality of man. In the credit system, man is transformed into money, and money has literally been incorporated into him, into his blood and pounds of flesh. When Shylock says that Antonio is “a good man” and Bassanio asks if he has heard otherwise, Shylock replies,


Ho no, no, no, no: my meaning, in saying he is a
good man, is to have you understand me that he
is sufficient.


That is, Antonio has a sound credit rating and is therefore “good.” Antonio echoes this moral judgment when, in speaking to the object of his desire, Bassanio, he elides the words “purse” and “person”:


My purse, my person, my extremest means
lie all unlock’d to your occasions.


Personality is pursonality. The problem is that Antonio’s purse is empty, for his argosies with portly sail are far-flung, all abroad, to the Indies, England, andthe whole globalized geography of the commercial orb for which the urbs of Venice is both the mirror and the marketplace. The trading floor of the Rialto is the prospect of what Shakespeare’s Elizabethan London might turn into and a fortiori the latter’s hypertrophy in New York some centuries later. Its economic logic is one not of self-sufficiency in the here and now but rather of overstretched indebtedness with promises of returns to come in the future. The cash-strapped Bassanio’s hoped-for acquisition of Portia’s inheritance helps solicit Antonio’s loan, which itself is “guaranteed” by his own ships’ prospective return, which in turn secures a new, three-month loan underwritten by his body—a set of deferrals and suspensions, of withdrawals and disappearances as joined up and mutually dependent as the networks of global capital itself.


Not only is Shakespeare’s Venice, like Madoff’s New York, a giant speculative system, steeped in avarice and expectations and underpinned by assurances that are themselves far from solid; beyond this, attraction itself is an economy to be both experienced and expressed in purely economic terms. What is going on in the drama of The Merchant of Venice is the transformation of the language of courtly love into that of commerce, the moneying of desire. And when it all goes wrong, then (as now) some Jew is going to have to pay.


2. Then Must the Jew Be Merciful


Sticking with Shakespeare’s play for a while: when Shylock calls the whole caboodle in, returning the speculation-based Venetian economy to its gold (or, rather, flesh) standard, disaster looms. The strategy initially advanced to avert disaster is not a sudden injection of resources but rather the invocation of a bottomless reserve of mercy. Portia, cross-dressed as the young lawyer Balthazar, announces a mercy that “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”—that is, without measure, infinitely. Portia (an impostor, let’s not forget) supplants economic law with a “higher,” moral order. And yet Shakespeare, good etymologist that he is, is all too aware that the mercy that cannot be strained, that should season justice, that the Jew Shylock should show, and that is even—according to Portia—an attribute of God himself, is derived from merces, meaning “payment,” “price,” or “fee.” Mercantile revenue is revenu in moral talk of mercy. Christianity (and, by extension, the moral rhetoric of liberalism into which it has mutated) is the hypocritical spiritualization of the originally material.


To avoid such Portian impostures, which, besides masking brutality (Shylock, it will be recalled, is viciously dispossessed by the court’s judgment), merely reboot the cycle of credit and bust by reinstituting its founding lie, we would urge the president to abandon his unconvincing Christian faith and embrace instead the doctrine of necronautical materialism expounded by the INS in numerous platforms and on numerous occasions.


3. Joyce’s Pawnography


There is an anti-monetary tradition in philosophy that extends from Aristotle’s Politics to Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, wherein money is the principle of corruption of all social relations (an ideal communist society would be one purged of money altogether). Yet there is an opposing tradition, culminating in the thought of Levinas and Derrida, in which money operates, to quote the Bard again, not simply as “Thou common whore of mankind” but also as “Thou visible god,/That solder’st close impossibilities./And mak’st them kiss”—that is, as both ontological and ethical enabler. The INS celebrates this second view and finds its supreme literary expression in Finnegans Wake, which we would urge the president and his aides to keep by their bedsides at all times. Not only is Joyce’s masterpiece suffused with monetary language (“shelenks,” “haypennies” and “dogmarks,” “sylvan coyne” and “ghinees”); it is also mired in the rhetoric of debt: of pawnshops, unpaid loans, “wallstrait” crashes, and what Joyce, theo-neologizing, calls “deblinity.”


The most debt-ridden of the Wake’s characters is Shem, who “lives off loans.” Shem is both an artist and a forger. Perusing other writers’ work, he decides to


study with stolen fruit how cutely to copy all their various styles of signature so as one day to utter an epical forged cheque on the public for his own private profit


—the “cheque” in question being the text itself, the “profit” that ensues being self-evident (Joyce’s work, the most celebrated in the history of prose, not only sells decades after his death but also inspires other writers to write, criticsto publish, teachers to teach, and so on). For Joyce, then, the creative act—an act of forgery—translates the negative space of debt into positive, “epic” productivity, returning us to credit. The implication for the president is simple: far from cracking down on counterfeit currency, he should encourage its circulation, since it gives the economy the creative fillip it so badly needs.


4. Recessional Epiphany


In Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in the middle of her stunning monologue about negative space

and negational language, Addie Bundren, a dark emissary of pure negativity, of death itself,

uses the word “recessional.” Faulkner’s obtuse—indeed, jarring—use of the term here

sends a diligent reader to the dictionary, which defines “recessional” as


Of or belonging to the recession or retirement of the clergy and choir from the chancel to the vestry at the close of a service; belonging to a recess (e.g., of Parliament).


“Recess,” in its turn, is given as


The act of retiring, withdrawing, or departing; a period of cessation.



Recession, then, is temporal and spatial: an interval at once legislative and sacred; an end that guarantees a new beginning. These meanings are doubly significant in relation to the overall structure of Faulkner’s novel, which sees every action come around again, all life’s cycles repeating around Addie as she slips away, recedes. Between each cycle, at the heart of a dead woman’s silent speech, recession intercedes, a death between each life. Read allegorically, recession, like a sacristy or harem, is the intimate space at the heart of all economics, its muted truth. Celebrate it as you would the revelation of godhead itself.


Simon Critchley and Tom McCarthy


—from Harper’s Magazine, June 2009