Literature as Media in the Digital Age: Reading Tom McCarthy

In the Socratic dialogue Phaedrus, Plato remarks on the usefulness of letters. Letters, says Socrates, will create ‘forgetfulness’ because the learners will trust ‘external characters’ and no longer use their memory. Fast forward to the inception of Google in the late 1990s and these words can be read as displaying an anxiety towards information technology. In our digital age, information is a few clicks away such that one rarely needs to jog one’s memory. Moreover, information can no longer be contained within geographical boundaries. In such an age, it is worth interrogating how digitization provides new and innovative ways of reading literature and culture.

Literature as media 

In Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, the protagonist, U., is invested in writing ‘The Great Report’, a book that would be the first and last word on our age. U. is a corporate anthropologist working for a Company that deals in ‘narratives’. U.’s job is to study behavioral patterns of groups of people, collect information in the form of dossiers, and lay bare some kind of inner social logic. ‘The Great Report’ is one such project, except it is much larger in scope; it attempts to sum-up the human tribe in the digital age and speak its secret name. U. contemplates,

It was all a question of form… What medium, or media, would it [the report] inhabit? 

By the end, the novel itself becomes ‘The Great Report’, a trash-heap of data and seemingly unrelated information; it becomes, as McCarthy writes in Transmission and the Individual Remix: How Literature Works, a question of broadcasting technology. In Transmission, McCarthy attempts to rethink literature along the lines of transmission and reception, signal and noise. McCarthy writes that “we are always not just… in medias res, i.e. in the middle of events, but also simply in media.” In order to argue that literature ‘works’ like information broadcasting, McCarthy posits three short questions: Who speaks? Who listens? What is said?

Who speaks? Who listens?

McCarthy answers the question of who speaks by considering the arguments made by Roland Barthes in the essay, “The Death of the Author”. Barthes writes that all writing is a “special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices” and that literature is an “invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin…” McCarthy calls this voice, the signal; in effect, the signal is ‘narrative code’ or simply, language. Barthes writes that “it is language which speaks, not the author.” McCarthy urges the readers to listen to “a set of signals that have been repeating, pulsing, [and] modulating in the airspace of the novel, poem, [and] play…” McCarthy gives the example of Aeschylus' The Oresteia (458 BC) in which the first play opens with a signal crossing space. It is a coded signal, created by sophisticated Greek beacons, that contains the information that Troy has fallen.

A transmitted signal has to be received. This brings one to the second question posited by McCarthy regarding who listens. To answer this, McCarthy applies the concept of Zusage given by the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. In On the Way to Language, Heidegger defines Zusage as a “[s]aying to which the nature of language is akin." Language, according to Heidegger, pre-exists the individual subject. He writes that we speak about language but language is always ahead of us and we are continually lagging behind what we first ought to have overtaken. He also writes that "speaking is of itself a listening… it is a listening not while but before we are speaking."

Repetition and Utopian Communication

In McCarthy’s analysis, speaking-as-listening is repetition: it requires “that time be first split up (speaking right now, I am inhabiting a previous moment, a moment of perviousness, of which the now, right now, is but an echo), then coiled back into itself in an endless feedback (speaking is listening to speaking, which, as we’ve just learnt, is listening − round and round).” This repetition takes the form of repeated acts in McCarthy’s debut novel, Remainder. The unnamed narrator-protagonist of Remainder meets with an accident described in the opening lines of the book:

About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits.

In “Trolling the Global Citizen: The Deconstructive Ethics of the Digital Subject”, Ben Staunton writes that the accident to which the protagonist refers “is that of his birth, of the production of a new human subject from within… communication technology of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.” In this new digital life, the protagonist spends his eight-and-a-half million pounds, received as part of a ‘settlement’, re-enacting events from his memory. 

Staunton writes that the protagonist of Remainder is in pursuit of ‘utopian communication’. The protagonist describes how the accident had damaged the part of his brain responsible for motor functions such that his body had to undergo a process of ‘rerouting’, that is, “finding a new route through the brain for commands to run along." The process proves to be complex and the protagonist desires effortless movements; that is, he desires a faultless ‘transmission’ of ‘signal’ from his brain to his limbs. Perfect repetition would be the end result of a perfect transmission.

However, this desired utopian communication cannot be achieved because of the existence of a ‘remainder’. Talking about the settlement, he says,

The eight was perfect, neat: a curved figure infinitely turning back into itself. But then the half… I remember picturing the sum’s leftover fraction… as the splinter in my knee, and frowning, thinking: Eight alone would have been better.

In each of his reenactments, there are always elements that do not go as planned; they are ‘remainders’ that prevent perfect transmission. “[S]ignal,” writes McCarthy, “ebbs away to noise.”

What is said?

This brings one to the last question posited by McCarthy regarding what is said. In Transmission, he announces that no serious writer has anything new to say; the writer is not an originating speaker but a listener, a “receiver, modulator, retransmitter: a remixer." Shakespeare, writes McCarthy, was remixing Ovid, Plutarch, and Holinshed, and Cervantes was remixing Montalvo, Ariosto, and Apuleius. In “World, Dialogue and Novel”, Julia Kristeva writes that “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another."

In considering the question of what is said, one must address the question of the ‘meaning’ of a text. If literature is a matter of broadcasting technology, then, according to McCarthy, “it can’t be separated from the topics of dismemberment and death, of loss, dissolution, vanishing.” ‘Utopian communication’ is impossible and ‘signal’ always suffers the danger of ebbing away into ‘noise’. In Remainder, this impossibility is described in terms of ‘remainders’; in Satin Island, it is described in terms of ‘buffering’. U. describes an interrupted video-call:

Her face froze in mid-sentence too. Its mouth was open…. as though she’d lost control of its muscles following a stroke… A little circle span in front of her, to denote buffering… a Call Ended message eventually replaced both face and circle.

In Transmission, McCarthy writes that literature needs to understand and appreciate its own ‘interruptedness’ and ‘disarticulation’. He elaborates on this by using Maurice Blanchot’s interpretation of the myth of Orpheus. In “Orpheus’ Gaze”, Blanchot writes that by looking back at Eurydice, Orpheus betrays the work, yet, paradoxically, he obeys the very demand of the work, which is “an unravelling from within through which the very content that the work purports to convey or recover becomes lost…” In other words, the ‘meaning’ of the text is slippery and can never be fully recovered.

To sum up, in Transmission and the Individual Remix as well as in his novels Remainder and Satin Island, McCarthy attempts to rethink literature as media. The premises of his formulated theory, like that of all theories, are neither absolute nor complete in themselves, they have the potential to be extended and contested. However, his formulations highlight how digitization indeed offers new and innovative ways of reading literature and culture.

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