Tom McCarthy Incarnate

Berlin-based author Tom McCarthy’s latest novel, The Making of Incarnation, goes in search of a moment of infinite possibility latent at the heart of industrial culture – chasing a fleeting, liberating dream of existence in motion.

I first encountered McCarthy at the London Consortium, a now defunct experimental masters and doctoral program where he was co-lecturing a seminar series on archives out of the upper galleries in the ICA. Inspired by Abraham and Torok’s reading of Freud’s Wolf Man, McCarthy suggested using psychoanalysis as a model for researching, reading and decoding hidden meaning in archives and texts. That through reading and interpreting the broken codes, cryptonyms, and fragments of images that flutter around encrypted memories as they echo and repeat in dreams, or are drawn to compulsive behaviors like so many flies to a corpse, we might disinter the sites of long-past trauma.

The author, artist, and essayist had taken over the ICA gallery before. In 2004, his avant-garde revivalist pseudo-organization, the International Necronautical Society (INS), turned the ICA into a pirate radio station to broadcast broken and remixed fragments of newspaper copy over the airwaves, using William Burroughs and Boris Gysin’s cut-up techniques to re-create the abstract poetic and meaningless messages that bewitch Orpheus to venture into the land of the dead in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. The idea was that in between the torn lines and ruined language, some other kind of meaning or message might emerge. I remember thinking, what space is death that we may sail across it?

The semi-fictive if bureaucratically real INS’ members included artists and philosophers arrayed in committees and panels that issued a flurry of reports and memos. They once expelled a fellow member for not being dead, then reinstated him once he had died. The group conducted “low-altitude aerial recognizance” of the scratched glass above the crypt in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, using the markings to trace the city around its past, around its deaths, and around the burnings of books memorialized beneath the ground. A decade and a half before post-truth and Trumpism, the INS produced a Declaration on Inauthenticity – delivered, of course, by actors pretending to be McCarthy and INS Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley – which decreed that our only “authenticity” is the fact that we are fundamentally inauthentic. Rather than heroic individual subjects, our selves are essentially divided, dividual — we trip and fall and laugh at ourselves at one and the same time.

To read McCarthy’s fiction is often to walk this line. His work is a high-wire spectacle of dead serious high-concept, met with dark humor and a subtly seductive joy in language. His stories are told through alliterative passages, concatenating descriptions, and abstract renderings of the mundane that elevate scenes into a delirious celebration of the lusty materiality of words. In his first published novel, Remainder, the unnamed protagonist is the beneficiary of a large pay-out after the sky literally falls on his head. His post-traumatic OCD manifests in progressively grand and large-scale reenactments of scenes he half remembers from a past, maybe his own. Enlisting actors to model his semi-recalled movements and permutations, he searches for some resolution or completion in these choreographies, with the goal to re-enter the world and live in it “authentically” – to return to a prelapsarian state. When an accident during a replayed bank heist brings the fantasy crashing down, the resulting collision with reality makes whatever it is he was looking for finally happen. Remainder is a novel of rupture and repetition, staged as compulsive and addictive re-enactment. A crack in a bathroom wall opening out to consume everything in its split as we fall into it.

McCarthy’s subsequent novels C. and Satin Island, both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in their own ways pick at the scab of the now, progressively exploring how technology, information, and power have shaped and continue to shape us. C. takes us through the birth of electricity as it shaped empire, a history told through the life of one Serge Carrefax. The novel is pulsating and claustrophobic, all noise and signal interference coloring the story in sepia tones. Satin Island’s hero offers a Kafka-esque everyman for our times: a corporate anthropologist tasked with writing “the great report,” a definitive account of the contemporary – and the one that will “change everything.”  A character without characteristics – but with good wifi and a Google search bar – he is appropriately named U. Without a brief, he compiles scrappy dossiers of illegible material, endless unusable drafts on topics such as oil spills, parachute deaths, South Pacific cargo cults, and buffering. Adrift in information overload and useless untethered meaning, Satin Island’s shows us that culture only begins on the ruins of language and communication, that power is always elsewhere – its cruelties acted remotely, the network effect of our entrapment – and that all satisfaction is forever delayed. These insights question the very possibility of “the present” as such, and hints at new yet unfounded temporalities.

McCarthy’s encircling themes and obsessions have evolved and tightened through each novel, and The Making of Incarnation is his most accessible so far. Through the shifting perspectives of a handful of related protagonists, the work goes in search of a “perfect movement” – and a box missing from the archive of industrial engineer and psychologist Lilian Gilbreth. A pioneer of workplace efficiency and ergonomics who inspired both NASA and the Soviets, Gilbreth used long exposure photography and lights attached to factory workers to record their movements in stereoscope and build wireframe models of the resulting light patterns, then analyzed the results to recommend choreographic improvements that revolutionized the efficiency of the production line.

In The Making of Incarnation, Gilbreth’s light boxes find modern digital equivalent in the motion capture work of data scientist Mark Phocan. Tasked by his boss to track down missing box 808 and uncover its secrets, Phocan searches in secretive archives and empty post-Soviet record offices. He models the movements of disabled children and amputee military veterans to improve personalized prosthetics. We visit aerospace weapons manufacturers developing enemy combatant recognition software, bobsleigh aerodynamic test sites in wind tunnels in Holland, and animation studios grading the titular movie, Incarnation. This blockbuster movie-in-the-book is a grand space opera retelling the myth of Tristan and Isolde as Tvetsan and Tild: star-crossed lovers who fall for each other as they traverse the galaxy in the spaceship Sidereal. Evolving the style of current Herbert or Asimov adaptations are McCarthy’s own tastes for Georges Bataille and Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou and Stephane Mallarmé. The book’s Incarnation scenes establish an epic scale suggesting what is at stake in the book’s entwining narratives and race to discover the missing box are questions of good versus evil, light versus dark, and of life and love played out against the void of space, of death.

For all its cosmic scope, The Making of Incarnation is also grounded. Abstract descriptions – of animation software interfaces, of clicks on a mouse, and of gestures made on a Wacom pen tablet to negotiate sub-menus and alter filters, add effects, cycle layers, and rotate artificial light-sources or camera angles – root us in the familiar contemporary desktop workspace. These choreographies of fingers dancing keyboard shortcuts and accessories that make the cursor an extension of self emphasize how patterned our relationship with the world is.

All the scenes and subjects of Phocan’s motion capture are encoded, framed, and modelled using the same software, interfaces, and algorithms. Technologies of capture, rendering, and animation – as the literal bestowing of life – are now fundamental to our being in the world. Still images become frames and, run sequentially, are animated; in stereoscope they define axis and form grids, creating space to track movement and motions. McCarthy suggests that our lives play out in the grids of unknowable black boxes, nodes in a network governed by the same underlying logics of representation. But the remainder, the un-re-presentable, the leftover and left-behind, are what offer hope of some accidental difference — of new, dark gravimetric centers of meaning warping the grids, unpicking the stitches, looping temporalities and wormholing through dimensions of reference, short circuiting metaphor and metonymy.

At one point in the novel, Lucy Diamond, one of Phocan’s colleagues, questions the possibility of instantaneous capture. She expresses a lingering unease that even in a camera capable of capturing an image photon by photon – one after the other, in turn – there is still, in that shiver of duration, something happening in between each frame, each miniscule burst of light. In opening this gap, writing through and between the lines of the grids he creates, McCarthy draws together disparate threads of narrative into a constellation of meaning. A celebration of the form of the novel and its potential for creating new meaning and new worlds, The Making of Incarnation crescendos in its pursuit of the lost secret of a “perfect movement,” and climaxes, via Gilbreth’s love of Dante’s Divine Comedy, in an almost metaphysical conflagration of the Sidereal in Incarnation that offers glimpses of a shimmering, concatenating, cascading moment of perfection. As these elements come into alignment, rippling for the briefest instant in a chorus through creation, they form an arc of continual becoming.

“When I discovered Lillian Gilbreth I thought…this is industrial culture. This is at the heart of industrial capitalism. What she was doing in the early- to mid-20th century is now everywhere. We’re living inside a Lillian Gilbreth black box, all of us, now.”

William Alderwick: Perhaps the best place to start is with the title of the book, The Making of Incarnation, and how the various meanings of incarnation” sit within it.

Tom McCarthy: I always wanted to have a blockbuster movie embedded within a story, and I wanted it to play out at this epic narrative scale. It’s Tristan and Isolde – the plot of [the] movie [in the book], “Incarnation.” I was doing some research on the Tristan and Isolde myth and that led me to Denis de Rougemont, the mid-century philosopher from whom I had to take the epigraph. He has this wonderful line about incarnation: “Incarnation is our grace… the lithe resilience of the flesh, the desire that will not halt.” I thought it was very beautiful and I hadn’t thought of a title for this movie-within-the-book, so I thought, “Incarnation, that’s a great title.” And it’s kind of cheesy as well, all these giant movies, like Inception.

It’s certainly a Christopher Nolan kind of title.

Exactly, [the movie] would be made by someone like that if it was real. As you say, “incarnation” does have several nuances. It can suggest a theological thing about the word made flesh, and it can also signal a more Bataillean base material strata of grotesque obscene meat. There’s the beautiful transcendent sex scene [in the film Incarnation in the book]. And when the [assistant directors] are trying to animate it in CGI are going, “it looks like a puppet porn show or some bits of meat slamming against each other in a butcher shop window during an earthquake.” I like that absolute base material level. It’s not the main plot of the book, it’s just one of many, but in a way the book is very much about bodies within the grid: the framing, capturing, and translation into language or code of human matter, of bodies; and the aesthetical, technological, and political quandaries – the Pandora’s boxes – that this [process] opens up.

Throughout the book, there is a search for a box missing from the archive of Lillian Gilbreth, and the recurring idea of a “perfect movement,” pursued through Gilbreth’s work with time lapse photography and the beginnings of motion capture.

It’s something I’ve always been fascinated with, right back to Remainder [in] 2005. The hero of that book – I didn’t know about Lillian Gilbreth then, but this guy is quite similar ­– isolates little elements and repeats them again and again; he models them and creates artificial situations in which they can be redone. And his ultimate quest is for this kind of Platonic, absolutely perfect movement. He only really gets that when he kills someone in a bank heist: when it goes disastrously wrong, veers off course, the accident produces [a] passage to a new level. The swerve, the Lucretian swerve, the Deleuzian clinamen, whatever you want to call it.

So when I discovered Lillian Gilbreth I thought, “Oh my god, this woman is doing what my guy was doing but she’s got a reason for it, other than just sub-poetic psychosis.” This is industrial culture. This is at the heart of industrial capitalism. What she was doing in the early- to mid-20th century is now everywhere. We’re living inside a Lillian Gilbreth black box, all of us, now. Every motion, all the sequences of public and private life, are being trapped and rationalized and algorithmized and so on. Gilbreth did study Plato, and she was into Dante – all that I didn’t make up. She did go to school with Isadora Duncan and Gertrude Stein. The real Platonic stuff about an absolutely perfect movement I embellished, I added. But it’s there in the logic of her thinking.

What are your own thoughts on the evolution of representation and capture? To the extent to which we find ourselves living in an animation today, in a similar “black box”?

Just as Foucault showed that there’s an archaeology of knowledge, so is there a genealogy of technocracy and of media and visual cultures and informatic cultures. This shit didn’t all start in 1998 or whenever Google was founded. It goes way back. In fact, even to track it back as far as Gilbreth or Marey is pretty short-term. Gilbreth herself talks about the Assyrian and Babylonian pictorial records that show labor techniques and best management styles. We could take it all the way back to a Greek artist painting a javelin thrower on an amphora, or indeed to Homer describing the trajectory of a chariot through a battlefield while another chariot crosses at such-and-such an angle to it. Homer is very forensic; he almost tells you where the javelin enters somebody’s jawbone and where it comes out through their eardrum. He’s like analysts who are very meticulous in their geometries of time and motion and violence.

So yes, I wanted to peel back the layers of the present and see what was behind them. And as with C (2010), my last but one novel — which was misunderstood in the press as a historical novel, but is not; it’s about new media and empire — it’s very much about now. It’s about looking at the genealogy of the present moment.

There always seems to be a peeling back to something that other people have forgotten, or not thought about, in your work. C was like that: the space or the energy of a moment in time was underrepresented or felt like a blind spot.

Both C and The Making of Incarnation address watershed moments where it could have gone either way. The black box we live in now is pretty fucking dystopian, right? It’s not working out very well. But there was a moment with Gilbreth that, while it was in the service of capital and control, also had huge emancipatory potential. This is what Alexsei Gastev saw [in Gilbreth’s work], who I didn’t make up, he was this futurist poet and choreographer who was put in charge of the Russian shop floors for several years before he was, of course, killed. But there was this moment of infinite possibility when something new and amazing, this vista opened up, in which life could have become dance.

The idea of a “perfect movement” is inherently politicized. There are surveillance states and social ratings currencies: you follow the “perfect movements,” and you can rise up in the party ranks. But equally, in other parts of the world, there are imperfect movements where you’ll have a hellfire missile raining down from some automated weapons platform.

As you say, these histories are unresolved, these political histories. Race is central in all of this as well. That really comes through when you realize that the whole history of copyright is inextricable from slavery, from the rights of white men, who [could] own their “ideas” like they owned their cattle, or the Black bodies of their slaves. And then choreography, the movement of bodies, becomes copyrightable too. When the Harlem renaissance comes along, Black people exchanging dance moves in ballrooms in uptown New York inherited a completely different notion of ownership: [one that] is much more open source. But then some white producer comes uptown and goes “Wow,” and takes it back down to Broadway and copyrights it. This is a very recognizable phenomenon that we see, especially in the music industry and in entertainment, but also in other fields.

The African American artist Sondra Perry has this wonderful piece about this called It’s in the game ’17. Perry’s brother was a very high-level college basketball player and he was part of a class action [suit] against the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletics Association]. The NCAA had sold the entire body and face rights of all the college basketball players, who are largely African American, to one of these big tech companies to make a video game, and the players weren’t getting any money for this. She juxtaposes this with 3D scans of tribal objects in the British Museum and the MET. She places it in the long history of expropriation or enclosure, un-commoning, privatization of common property, which so often breaks down along racial lines. These platforms, social rankings, and new networks – you can always place them in this long durée struggle.

One of the central tableaus in the book is the bobsleigh wind tunnel.

That’s the first section I wrote.

It’s interesting that you say that, because what really stands out in my mind is the visual image you set up. Three lasers intersecting vertically through the wind tunnel in flat planes, cutting through what were seeing in front of us, the bobsleigh, and it struck me that this is the model of the book. How do you see these three planes, this way of thinking about the story or about narrative itself, intersect in the book?

You’re absolutely right – I mean, it is the whole book. It’s funnily enough what I got the most push back editorially about including, and I really stamped my foot down and said, “No … you can take everything else out, but that’s the book.” It’s the book within the book.

It’s about flow, it’s about time. I was interested in creating this space, which is of course a technological space and an analytical space and a fictional space. The wind tunnel is reconstructing the conditions of an Austrian bobsleigh run in a scientific environment in Holland, but it’s also a psychic space where all the different characters’ interior neuroses and histories are playing out. And other histories, too. Even the air that flows through the wind tunnel is not neutral – even though they say, “This air is neutral.” Even the technician knows it’s not; Dutch air, it’s not neutral. It’s been completely constructed. All of Holland is a constructed space, a scooped-out wind tunnel. There are histories; everything is dirty, the air is marked. There are ghosts.

But the three interrogation planes, it is a classical before and after. Oedipus is another big figure in this book. The swollen foot, doing the crime you’re always going to have done, being always already guilty. I mean Phocis is the place where three roads meet, and that’s where Mark Phocan is from – he almost spells it out. In Oedipus you’ve also got three interrogation planes. You’ve got the before, which is the oracle’s statement that this child is going to kill his father and murder his mother. And then you’ve got the time of the actual event, the crime: the killing of the father at the place where three roads meet, in Phocis. And then you’ve got the after, the wake-field, wake-flow time plane, which is the one that Sophocles’ play is set in: the time of interrogation. “What’s just happened? Why is everything cursed? Oh, here’s Tiresias to explain.” And these three interrogation planes between them form the play. They are the three planes of the temporality of that play or that myth.

The wind tunnel scene is also dialoguing with Proust and his whole idea of a “moment of pure time.” The Olympic bobsleigh trainer in the scene almost says those exact words. In fact, in my first draft he did [say them], but I thought “Oh come on, this is too obvious.” So I called it “an instant of nowness” or something. The narrator asks the rhetorical question: “What machine operating at what scale could render the following…?”  – and goes off on a digression about stock market bubbles and tulips and how those, too, are part of the histories of this space, this marked Dutch atmosphere.

And the answer really is: “the book.” That’s the machine, the only machine, the only scale, that can render it. The old, gloopy windowpane we zoom in on near the end of the novel is another such machine, another capture machine. Although no one can read it.

“We’re absolutely surrounded by technologies that record and sense and archive and algorithmize and kill in an endless feedback loop. But what machine can hold those in a particular constellation of desire and affect and understanding? Only literature can do that.”

Except for the author and readers of the book. The last time we spoke, about Satin Island, you posed the question of what writing was after the end of writing. How do writing and literature specifically respond to this moment when everything is captured, when our lives are written in a book that is not ours to write or read? It struck me that much of this book seems to be trying to answer that, to unpack our moment and explore things that are captured and encoded in our world: meaning and resonance, materiality and mattering, or the mattering of matter that is outside of our ability to experience it ourselves. But we have technology that can extract it, disinter it, bring it out.

Yeah, I think this book is a passionate affirmation of literature. Windows and cameras and sensing devices and algorithms and drones and market analysis and football pattern analysis and forensics – all these things [show us that] we’re absolutely surrounded by technologies that record and sense and archive and algorithmize and kill in an endless feedback loop. But what machine can hold those in a particular constellation of desire and affect and understanding? Only literature can do that. So, the window’s almost a stand in. Even the wind tunnel’s really a stand in, because the wind tunnel isn’t actually revealing all those histories – the repressed homosexual desires of the bobsleigh trainer, the history of the Dutch stock market bubbles, the Oedipal dimensions of Mark Phocan, and so on. The only machine doing that, the only machine that can actually capture and frame all that, is the novel itself.

Think of the end of Ulysses. All these humanist and Christian commentators on Joyce [have tried] to say, “It’s a wonderful joyous coming together at the end.” But actually it’s not; it’s a really depressing story. Nothing happens. This unhappy couple – after the guy’s been to a brothel – just sleeps end to end with their dead son hovering spectrally above the bed, and this drunk young man goes off to become a journo-hack most probably. And only in the book – only in Ulysses the text – is this amazing constellation of myth and symbol and history and everything, through a very careful architecture of illusion and reference and metonymy, just for a fleeting moment, brought into alignment and visibility.

Anyhow, so yes, I believe in the novel.

In Satin Island,  the character Madison is taken away to a strange other space after being arrested at some protests and forced to perform a choreography of strange movements, like a series of bankrupt sex acts or hollowed out yoga. Does the idea of a “perfect movement” relate to this, even in contrast? At the end of The Making of Incarnation, there’s a resonance that makes me think of the music of the spheres, or ideas of grace or divine grace – of being affixed with a divine light. This theme comes through in the Dante references, for example.

There is of course a continuity, all the way back to Remainder, in the idea of bodily movements that can be isolated, modelled, and replayed on command. Sade is a really important figure here. This is what happens in his replay machine in 120 Days of Sodom. They go to this house and get these high-class prostitutes to tell stories of various sex acts they’ve done, more and more perverse, and then they re-enact them in the space of the house and modulate them. They’re almost producing a taxonomy of sexual moments physically, and of course that’s what Madison is caught up in in Satin Island.

But it has a relation to narrative as well, this space of retelling – and retelling is always an act of violence, like Scheherazade in Arabian Nights. It is similar here: the characters, all the motion-capture actors and so on, are also performing to order within a system of power and capital. But there is something beautiful about it.

Tristan and Isolde is ultimately a story about leaping beyond all bounds into the abyss, and into impossibility. It’s desire, it’s the line of flight of desire out of the mechanisms of capture of everything else.

I was reading quite a bit of Giorgio Agamben when I wrote this book, and when I wrote Satin Island. He has this wonderful passage about pornography, where he says that what’s wrong with pornography is not that it’s about sex or whatever, it’s that usually within porn, capitalism is controlling desire. But he imagines this liberated pornography where bodies would have moved out of the strictures of their own capitalist designations into some kind of space of, not exactly autonomy, but some other space, some space of otherness. And he thinks that is a consummation devoutly to be wished. And also, in The Use of Bodies, he talks about this a lot: bodies liberated into uselessness.

Meaning a kind of freedom to follow the patterns of yourself? Is that what a perfect movement could be, one that somehow sits somewhere outside and liberated from capitalistic use, but embodies itself?

I wouldn’t even use the word freedom. There’s a wonderful interview with Lacan where someone asks him about freedom and he just chuckles and says, “Je ne parle jamais de liberté” – “I never talk about Freedom.” Especially now, the word “freedom” has been co-opted by the right and within far-right discourses. But yes, none the less, yes, it’s not freedom, it’s a complete abjection, it’s a surrender. My lovers Tsvetan and Tild surrender themselves to the it, the abyss or the moment.

All this stuff I got from Denis de Rougemont, where he’s summarizing Kierkegaard, talking about this “moment where time makes contact with eternity” – this is the “it” you have to step into. It’s not a liberation but it’s a surrender; perhaps to uselessness, when bodies can just be doing something in and of themself, not for something else. Uselessness, a kind of suspension… Agamben has a line about, how this uselessness opens bodies up to every possible use without tying them to any. I think that, in a way, was the kind of possibility that I found extremely attractive and wanted to articulate.

Both in Satin Island and this one, there is the idea of searching for something that “changes everything.” What is the thing that “changes everything?”

I guess in both novels, there’s this lurking potential of a transformative moment or thing or something; [it is as though] the gunpowder is there, if only – if only the match could touch it.

The moment, that explosive big bang that never quite happens – I guess it’s very Mallarmé-ian, Badiouian. The event consists of the event’s own withholding, which seeds the whole event-field with the non-happening-ness of the event which makes it; it’s like Hitchcock’s bomb under the table. But we never see it go off.

Badiou presents us with a thinking of the “Ur-event” as such: the thinking of the event that itself is non-eventful in that it cannot ever really happen, because its cataclysmic rupture is perhaps modelled on a plane abstracted from embodied materiality. Can that be contrasted with the fugue state ending of The Making of Incarnation, where the reader is taken to a moment where all these things and stories and paths align, and we’re offered a sense of constant becoming, constant happening, resonating eventfulness? This is where the idea of grace is touched on, the idea of the divine comedy that Gilbreth is reaching towards.

My novels are all theological books. I’m a total atheist, but those two are not incompatible; they’re still theological. You’re still dealing with the big questions – death and transcendence, or not. Dante’s very important in this book, but it’s not a Christian book. I guess one way to say it would be, “Yes, love is the answer, that changes everything and that is the force that holds the sun and other stars in formation.” That’s the Dante “out,” and that’s embedded in here. But I guess the “out” I go for is much more unresolved and Badiouian. It’s about the potential seeded in the abyssal space of the event field, and the irresolvable non-happeningness that makes the event possible – but somewhere else, at some other time.

As Agamben says, “There is salvation, but not for us.”

The Making of Incarnation by Tom McCarthy was published by Penguin Random House on November 2, 2021.

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