Tom McCarthy & The Modern Lovers of Debris


This appeared in the March 2009 issue of Dazed & Confused (vol. 2 issue 71, p. 227):

Tom McCarthy & The Modern Lovers of Debris

The General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society is devoted to literature by all means possible

Now that Tom McCarthy’s debut novel Remainder is toasted as a contemporary classic by the likes of Zadie Smith, it is easy to forget that no publisher would touch it. The young author increasingly looked to the art world, where he discovered a forum initially more congenial to serious literary investigations. But how has his organisation evolved since its launch ten years ago? “Like a virus,” he explains, “It started out as a tiny thing in a laboratory and has spread and mutated as it plays itself out on increasingly larger stages.” The laboratory was a London art fair on the South Bank where McCarthy handed out the International Necronautical Society’s founding manifesto to bemused passersby. Back then, the Necronauts’ mission statement — “death is a type of space which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit” — was probably often dismissed as yet another YBA-style stunt. In fact, the organisation’s deliberately absurd premise was intended to place it “in the zone of silence and impossibility from which all good art stems”. McCarthy wanted to create a “non-academic arena” in which he and his co-conspirators would be able to ogle theory making sweet love to practice.

The INS made a big splash with its 2002 “experiment in viral transmission”, which involved secretly inserting INS propaganda into the source code of the BBC’s website. The connection between aesthetics, technology and politics was further explored in 2004 when the INS set up its Broadcasting Unit at the ICA, inspired by the cryptic messages Orphée picks up on his car radio in Cocteau’s famous film. But the society’s breathtaking ambition only really became apparent last year when McCarthy and INS chief philosopher Simon Critchley unveiled their Joint Statement on Inauthenticity in New York. In a brilliant example of metadrama, doubts were cast on the authenticity of this event and the INS Department of Propaganda refused to “authenticate” the “unauthorised” transcripts and recordings circulating on the internet.

The Joint Statement was presented at Tate Britain this January and revolves around the notion of “originary inauthenticity” — the trauma of materiality which prevents us from feeling at one with ourselves or the world. Art and literature frequently try to deal with this problem by sublimating matter and “elevating it into form”. Necronauts reject this temptation — they are “modern lovers of debris” who choose to “celebrate the imperfection of matter”. McCarthy points out that “what makes the trajectory of Yeats’s work so fascinating is the shift from early idealism to late materialism. And that’s where Joyce begins: debris, detritus, fragments, Stephen Dedalus squelching rubbish on the beach. That’s the landscape that has to be navigated, here, now — and celebrated, not transcended.”