- Infrastructures of Being:Modernism as Media Theory
British writer and artist Tom McCarthy’s recent Satin Island (2015) is a theory of our present information society—and its abiding fantasies of connectivity—disguised as a novel. Early on, the book’s protagonist, an in-house corporate anthropologist named “U,” describes the enigmatic Koob-Sassen Project that preoccupies the organization for which he works. The Project is both “a pretty boring subject” and the very infrastructure of the present: “in fact,” he tells the reader, “there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or another, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it was secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring. And complex.”1 Formed of other projects, interfacing with other projects, the Project’s shape and contours defy description, proliferating visual metaphors—hovering spaceship, rabbit warren, pond lilies—that fall short. The complexity of projects like these, U senses, poses the problem of infrastructure: they are “equally boring, equally inscrutable” (13). To think them, he will get equally systematic, compiling endless dossiers that only compound the informatic surfeit sustaining the Project. To approach “some kind of infrastructural master-meaning,” which is to get a grasp of the present, he relies on the methodology of his hero, Claude Lévi-Strauss (28). [End Page 233]
McCarthy excels at theory novels like Satin Island, and the terrain of literary modernism has held a special place in his earlier work’s way of using fiction to do media theory and thinking hard about the medium of the novel in the process. Modernism, McCarthy insists, enjoys a special relationship to the technical media of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and its encounters with media bear directly on what U dubs “Present-Tense Anthropology™.” The rare intensity of this convergence between technique and technology, directly explored in McCarthy’s inhuman bildungsroman C (2010) and its knowing return to 1922, has also fueled a number of important scholarly attempts to embed modernism in a messy terrain of media practices and rivalries.2 I have in mind here the explosion of work over the last decade or so by literary critics who have recast high-modernist media experiments as ways of domesticating and estranging the inhuman dimensions of the old new media of mechanical reproduction by forging fragile human intimacies with it. Positioning modernist aesthetics within the dynamics of media change and competition, critics have recast modernist form as an event within a competitive media environment in which vanguard sensorial experiments become so many ways of making media a lifestyle, accommodating the challenge of technicity to the prestige and epistemic authority of the human.
Approached anew as a kind of media pedagogy, literary modernism itself has been variously redescribed as a defensive process of homeopathic inoculation against the traumatic incursion of a new media environment; or as a more ambivalent lesson in how to feel about mechanical prosthesis; or as creative receptivity to noise and the stochastic; or as a coping mechanism for the early twentieth century’s climate of excessive information.3
Such work has productively challenged some of the less controversial, even banal claims about why modernist studies has so obviously needed “the media concept”: namely, because media store and transmit information, messages, and narrative content. Or that something later called modernism emerged fitfully alongside new technologies of storage and transmission (the telegraph, telephone, radio, cinema, rotary press, etc.) and within a climate of informatic density. Within such an environment, the mass media, understood as influential distributors of messages and meaning, seemed to have achieved a new degree of ideological power...