- Death’s VanguardA review of Tom McCarthy, Simon Critchley, et al., The Mattering of Matter: Documents from the Archive of the International Necronautical Society
Since 1999, Tom McCarthy—recently heralded as the “standard-bearer of the avant-garde novel”—has served as General Secretary of a “semifictitious avant-garde network” called the International Necronautical Society, or INS (Kirsch; McCarthy, Remainder). In its “Founding Manifesto,” the group declares its commitment to “bring[ing] death out in the world.” Death, necronauts insist, “is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonize, and, eventually, inhabit.” Vowing to “sing death’s beauty—that is, beauty,” they “tap into its frequencies,” which suffuse our daily life, from communication technologies (radio, television, the internet) to “dustbins of decaying produce.” Even “our very bodies” are “no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably toward death”: “we are all necronauts, always, already” (Mattering 53). Under McCarthy’s leadership, the INS has engaged in a variety of activities—conducting interviews, staging “hearings,” delivering and publishing “reports,” and exhibiting installation pieces across Europe and the U.S.—which address topics such as language, technology, art, politics, and money.1 The Mattering of Matter, a new collection of selected INS documents published by Sternberg Press, includes transcripts of key interviews, public addresses (principally by McCarthy himself and INS Chief Philosopher, Simon Critchley), and all of the group’s previously published statements, with an introduction by Nicolas Bourriaud, contemporary curator and theorist of “relational aesthetics.”
McCarthy’s rise to literary prominence began in 2007 with the U.S. publication of his debut novel Remainder (originally published by the Paris-based Metronome Press in 2005),2 and he became a full-blown literary success after his third novel C (2010) was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Yet many of McCarthy’s admirers are unaware that his INS activities not only preceded the publication of his fiction, but were integral to it. McCarthy has consistently relied on the INS to explore the inchoate themes of his fiction in extra-literary form.3 Blurring the boundaries between high art and commercial culture, the INS consciously recalls the historical avant-garde’s assault on the familiar social and institutional confines of artistic production. As Bourriaud points out in his introduction, like the Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists before it, the INS draws explicitly on “the dominant forms of its era” (11): commercial enterprise, mass communication, and politics. For the INS, this includes the language of investment banking, venture capital, and social networking as well as conspiracy theories, bureaucratic proceduralism, spying, and terrorism; in a typical recent statement, the INS claims to be “recruiting agents, sleepers and moles throughout American institutions and networks” (220). Onto these pervasive rhetorical forms the INS projects the untimely concerns of an outmoded and apparently retrograde modernism: “transgression, death and sacrifice” (Mattering 207).
Their “Founding Manifesto” clearly signals this affinity with the modernist avant-garde, boldly announcing the group’s arrival in The Times of London ninety years after the Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti published “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” in Le Figaro. In contrast to Marinetti’s florid narration, dripping with disgust at the Italian bourgeoisie, the INS proceeds less confrontationally, putting forward a terse four-point plan that reads more like a shareholder memo than an artistic credo.4 They conclude with a promise that their research into death’s myriad forms will culminate in the construction of a “craft that will convey us into death” (53). The First Committee, we are told encouragingly, is already considering a variety of projects, including the “patenting and eventual widespread distribution of Thanadrine [TM]” and the “building of an actual craft” (Mattering 54).
McCarthy and Critchley’s “Joint Statement on Inauthenticity” (2007) provides the most concise summary of necronautical philosophy. Drawing on the opposition between form and matter fundamental to Western thought, McCarthy and Critchley argue that art follows one of two paths: artists can either emulate Hegel’s privileging of the concept and “soak up...