Ecstasy of inauthenticity

Tom McCarthy

Toke My Asymptote – or, The Ecstatic Agony of Appearance

Veröffentlicht am 04.12.2019



In his epochal work The Coming Community, Giorgio Agamben seduces, or perhaps assaults, the reader with salvo after salvo of provocations that are both counterintuitive and (partly for that very reason) devastatingly persuasive. For me one of these in particular might stand out. It appears near the beginning, in Section Four, ‘Ethics’, he writes, ‘begins only when … the authentic and the proper have no other content than the inauthentic and the improper.’ The statement helps sketch a fundamental line or vector of a blueprint for a new way of thinking community in relation to language and desire; for a new way of thinking politics and democracy in relation to outside- or in between-ness; of thinking bodies in relation to their spectacular mediation; and of course, of thinking the self, or subject – the ‘proper’ of the passage I’ve just quoted – in relation to all of the above. But what’s most striking about the statement – here’s where counterintuition comes in – is the way it lays out its concepts: rather than being set apart from the authentic on the far side of some kind of notional grid, as its opposite (although it is precisely that) the inauthentic is looped back into the former, placed at its very core; ditto the improper, which is reintroduced as nothing other than the proper’s ‘content’. And, what’s more, this looping back, this oxymoronic return of the expelled, is said to entail the basis and the possibility of ethics.

The question of authenticity and I go back some way; we’re old sparring partners – frenemies. It’s been a fraught relationship, shot through with paradox and misconstruing. My first novel, Remainder, does turn around its protagonist’s obsession with becoming ‘real’, inhabiting his era or his city, building, skin, movements and gestures in a ‘first-hand’ or ‘authentic’ way, an obsession which he carries to the point of murder. Yet the pleasure of seeing this book receiving glowing press reviews that praised it for its ‘originality’ and ‘true’-ness was tinged with an awareness of something being odd or ‘off’, since Remainder is in fact the most un-original of novels, a novel about non-originality and simulacra that’s quite blatantly composed of set tropes and constructed situations reprised and, only slightly modified, replayed from sources ranging from Ballard’s Crash and Beckett’s Godot back to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (Uncle Toby’s domestic re-stagings of battle terrains) and Marvell’s Upon Appleton House (ditto), with the pianist from Hergé’s The Castafiore Emerald, the one who fills a house and its giant staircase with pre-recorded piano scales looped in from a tape recorder, somewhere in the mix as well.

Soon after Remainder’s US publication, Simon Critchley and I, as Chief Philosopher and General Secretary of an organisation that was also a knowing re-enactment of motifs and moments from the historical avant-garde (even its manifesto was a composite of recycled material), delivered a Joint Statement on Inauthenticity in New York’s Drawing Center. In it, we argued for the fallen imperfection of matter (Plato’s hyle) over the transcendent perfection of form (eidos); for the multiple, divided and self-contradictory ‘dividual’ over the autarchic or consistent individual; for art’s secondary status, as the repetition of a copy, over any notion of a work as the first-hand ‘expression’ of a self or subject; and for comedy, the fall into mechanic duplication, splitting and non-uniqueness – that is, into inauthenticity – over tragedy, the supposed heroic mastery of self and fate through a willed death that would bind all together in an orgy of ascendant and redemptive synthesis. Of which more later.

One of the journalists covering the Declaration claimed that the men delivering it were not actually Critchley and myself. His claim was incorrect, although its logic was impeccable: why would we undermine our argument by being who we were supposed to be? Realising we’d missed a trick, we decided, when Nicolas Bourriaud invited us to re-deliver the Declaration at Tate Britain a year later, to send actors (who, of course, being trained to speak in public, performed it much better than we had); thereafter, it was outsourced to biennials and museums around the globe, complete with a detailed manual stipulating that it must be spoken in the local language of a given venue (Greek in Athens, Mandarin in Taipei, etc.), by native and not necessarily male speakers, specifying the arrangement of the dais and lecterns, clothing, security and so forth. But even here, a kind of misconstruing is risked if one sees the shift from real-us to stand-in doubles as a modal change: for hadn’t it (to copy-and-paste Deconstruction’s vocab) always already been someone else speaking it? What was the Declaration other than a letting-speak, ventriloquism of a counter-logic nestled at the heart of Western thought, its amplifying to the point where speaker, any speakers, real or fake, fade out, replaced by the surround sound, by the repetition loops, the feedback?

Here, with this last term, we stumble across the incisive pairing wrought by the title of this magazine’s issue, the dynamic thinking it necessitates. Authenticity and Feedback. For philosophers authenticity is a fairly easy concept to get a handle on. It comes to us from Greece and Plato via the twentieth century and Heidegger, for whom our embeddedness in inauthentic facticity, or ‘that-ness’, what he calls das Daß seines Da, might be overcome by an Augenblick or ‘moment of vision’, an authentic decision through which one’s existence comes into the simplicity of its Schicksal, fate, by (as he melodramatically puts it) ‘shattering itself against death’. This position is dealt its riposte by Adorno, who sees authenticity operating less as a concept than a ‘jargon’ that circumvents actual thinking: ‘Whoever is versed in this jargon’, he writes, ‘does not have to say what he thinks, does not even have to think it properly. The jargon takes over this task and devaluates thought.’ (A whole talk might here be written on the way this monetary language, this rhetoric of devaluation, opens up onto a world of coinage, counterfeit and circulation in which metaphysics is revealed as economics – indeed, Derrida’s whole oeuvre might be seen as this talk’s composition.) I won’t summarise Adorno’s entire thesis here; but let me rather note how uncannily current its sentences ring now. ‘In Germany,’ he states in 1964, at the outset of The Jargon of Authenticity, although he could just as well be talking about Britain, France or the US today,

a jargon of authenticity is spoken – even more so, written. Its language is a trademark of societalized chosenness, noble and homey at once – sub-language as superior language. The jargon extends from philosophy and theology … to pedagogy, evening schools, and youth organisations, even to the elevated diction of the representatives of business and administration. While the jargon overflows with the pretence of deep human emotion, it is just as standardized as the world that it officially negates; the reason for this lies partly in its mass success, partly in the fact that it posits its message automatically through its mere nature …

With one stroke of the pen, Adorno has nailed not only the operating logic of bad art, but also that of wellness, mindfulness and yoga and all like practices of self-redemption – not to mention neoliberalism’s core ideological manoeuvre, its conceptual sleight-of-hand: Express your unique individuality, your own, true, free spirit by customising your mass-indentured labour-produced trainers! Adorno goes further, and suggests that authenticity, as Weltanschauung or belief system, has intimate ties to fascism, furnishing the language that in turn ‘provides it [fascism] with a refuge’. This, too, seems eminently current. Could we imagine the ascent of Trumpism or the Brexit movement without their accompanying paeans to the ‘real’ Americans, the ‘true voice’ of the ‘authentic’ British people? Of course we can’t. Fascism is not just spoken in but wedded at is rotten core to concepts of authentic rootedness, of self-determination, of ethnic propriety or properness, the heroic Schicksal of a pure collective ‘self’.

Nor, it pains me to say, is such rottenness limited to the right. One of the many disasters of our current moment is the way in which some sections of the self-identifying left have swallowed wholesale, quite uncritically adopted an ethnic essentialism straight out of Steve Bannon’s playbook: witness, for example, recent attacks on artists such as Omer Fast, Sam Durant, Dana Schutz, Luke Willis Thompson, for not being the ‘right’ (or in Willis Thompson’s case, not quite the right) race to make certain artworks; all of which attacks implicitly or even explicitly invoke a logic whereby one’s access to language and metaphor would be dependent on one’s precise racial designation, one’s verifiable genetic constitution. Beyond the art world, bowing to the same logic, Elisabeth Warren submits to a DNA test to ascertain the level of Cherokee coursing through her veins. I could go on; like instances, in every walk of life, are legion. The point is, though, that they can all be plotted or assigned coordinates within the grid whose modern version was first sketched by Heidegger and then so presciently – and ruthlessly – eviscerated by Adorno.


Philosophy ‘gets’ authenticity. But feedback? That comes from another world, the world of ground-to-air missile ranging, machine learning and game theory – from the world, that is, of cybernetics. In his 1950 work The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Norbert Wiener latches onto the scene of nautical navigation, in particular the figure of the kubernetes, the helmsman or ‘governor’ – a dual term designating not just the political position but also the inbuilt, self-regulatory device that allows boats’ steam engines to assess and respond to their own temperature data, thus preventing breakdown through overheating. Beneath the banner of the Greek word’s English recycling, cybernetics, he goes on to elaborate a giant, almost universally applicable vision through which a range of situations can be both mapped and manipulated by being understood in terms of information or communication systems – understood, that is, as networked mechanisms formed of and driven by a set of circuits, relays and, most importantly, feedback loops. When I pick up a cigar, I translate into action nothing other than a feedback loop, a reflex turning the amount by which I’ve not yet picked up the cigar into an order to the lagging muscles. When I shoot down a plane, my limbs on the ack-ack gun and the wire along which the firing order hums its way towards the earphones clamped round my head, the vacuum tubes that plot the plane’s path on a radar screen, and thus the time-line from which approach gradients to the spot of air it’s occupying right now can be extrapolated to predict the spot that it will occupy two seconds hence: all these make up an integrated circuit, in which servo-mechanism isn’t just the mode of mankind, but his measure also. And not just of mankind: elevators, jellyfish amalgams, the whole architecture of abstracted systems such as economics or the law – these, too, are birthed and structured by (and therefore legible within) the matrix-womb of cybernetics. That is Wiener’s proposition.

I’ve argued elsewhere that this vision, the core one of the age of information – not to mention digital surveillance – which emerged throughout the late twentieth century and has established itself so forcefully at the outset of the twenty-first, was perfectly anticipated decades earlier by Kafka, whose work also abounds in networked information systems, desks with ‘regulator’ dials, ‘control’ circuits feeding data out of ledgers into phone lines which result in telegrams and letters that in turn wend their way back to ledgers; he even wrote an early fragment named Der Steuermann,The Helmsman’. What I want to flag up here, though, are this vision’s implications for the realm of the subjective, of the self, the ‘proper’. What we used to call ‘psychology’ is also one of the fields to which Wiener stakes a claim for cybernetics; but he does so in a way that would require an overhaul of the field’s soil. No longer the expression of a discrete mind or animus (or, perhaps, even an unconscious), one’s psychic make-up would have to be understood in terms of feedback loops that, far from constituting a closed, hermetic circle, instead incessantly update, offset, rewrite and overwrite themselves in a phrenetic pulsing of (to borrow one of Joyce’s terms) ‘corrective unrest’. In this wiring of the self, the system self-refreshes constantly; which means that the proper, properly understood, is always placed beside or outside of itself, departing and returning in extraneous form, improper.

In Wiener’s psychonetics, there might be no classical unconscious; yet his vision, it seems to me, is utterly consistent with the post- or neo-Freudian psychoanalytic system laid out by Lacan. Lydia Liu, in her important study The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious, points out that, on its translation into English, Lacan’s work was stripped of much of the explicitly cybernetic terminology that characterised the original – an omission that, like some pulsing on-off switch or spark gap, helped power an intercontinental feedback loop of offset cultural influence. ‘Contrary to common belief,’ she writes,

a great deal of what we now call French theory was already a translation of American theory before it landed in America to be reinvented as French theory … This strange play of mirrors took place along the migratory and circulatory routes whereby American game theory and cybernetics became progressively unseen and unmarked through their Frenchness.

Like Poe’s Dupin, she has pointed out the letter hiding in plain site – for isn’t feedback’s diction central to Lacan’s whole theory of self-generation through misprision? Doesn’t his drive follow the route (in his own words) of a ‘circuit’? What do his many diagrams resemble if not convoluted electronic or information flow charts – most frequently ones with a re-circulating path, a passage of departure and return (to borrow from Joyce again, ‘a commodius vicus of recirculation’). ‘One must distinguish’, Lacan writes in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, in the chapter entitled ‘The Partial Drive and its Circuit’,

the return into the circuit of the drive of that which appears – but also does not appear – in a third stage. Namely, the appearance of ein neues Subjekt, to be understood as follows – not in the sense that there is already one, namely the subject of the drive, but in that what is new is the appearance of a subject. The subject, which is properly the other, appears only so far as the drive has been able to show its circular course.

This is Agamben’s dictum stated in more (appropriately) convoluted terms: subjective authenticity or fullness is an illusion cast out by the lantern of its exact opposite, partialness; what’s proper to the subject is exactly what’s improper to it, the other. Liu’s preferred metaphor of mirrors might, of course, point us to Lacan’s most famous essay, ‘The Mirror Phase as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’. Here, too, is a narrative of self-construal through constitutive self-splitting: when the child catches its own reflection in the mirror, an ‘Ideal-I’ or ‘imago’ forms from which the human subject will eternally consider him- or herself to have fallen, their ensuing subjectivity dispersed across a circuit that will feed an illusory appearance of fullness back into itself recursively and (necessarily) unsatisfactorily or incompletely:

This form situates the agency known as the ego, prior to its social determination, in a fictional direction that will forever remain irreducible for any single individual or, rather that will only asymptotically approach the subject’s becoming, no matter how successful the dialectical syntheses by which he must resolve, as I, his discordance with his own reality.

Forgive the authentic-sounding confessional turn – but I recall with utter clarity first reading this sentence as a student, in a library, and having to go and haul out a giant dictionary in which to look up that word ‘asymptotically’. It’s the adverb of asymptote,a line that approaches nearer and nearer to a given curve, but does not meet it within a finite distance’. It’s one of those great words that are made all the richer by the sense that it has no other application than the one you’re seeing now, by the near certainty that you’ll never encounter it again. But I did, more than a decade later, when, skimming a newspaper article about Remainder which stated that the book was clearly influenced by my reading of Kleist (whom I’d never read), I played catch-up and went and dug out his 1810 essay ‘On the Marionette Theatre’. To summarise briefly: in a fairground, the narrator spots a dancer friend who, watching marionettes being manipulated, marvels at the way in which dance ‘could be entirely transferred to the realm of mechanical forces’ and ‘controlled by a crank.’ Here’s where that wonderful word comes back: the relation between the manipulator’s hands and the puppets’ movements, the friend claims, is ‘like the relation of numbers to their logarithms or asymptotes to the hyperbola’. But he goes further, and claims that puppets, having no self-awareness to interrupt the flow of motion – that is, of their very being – are more ‘natural’ and ‘gracious’ than even the finest human dancers. In uncannily Lacanian language, he goes on to illustrate this point by recounting the story of a hitherto ‘gracious’ German youth, who, on catching sight of his own reflection in a mirror and recognising a duplication of a famous statue’s posture, set out to reconstruct the posture, repeatedly, failing each time, whereafter his grace permanently abandoned him, leaving him gangly and awkward. Such a fall, Kleist urges, is not just psychological; it’s metaphysical, inevitable once the apple of knowledge has been tasted. But, he muses, maybe, just maybe, we can imagine some form of transcendental state in which our exile’s path might lead all the way back round to its point of departure:

Just as two lines coming to a point of intersection after passing through the infinite, suddenly re-emerge on the other side; or the image in the concave mirror, vanishing into the infinite, suddenly stands in front of us, so will grace return when our consciousness has likewise journeyed through the infinite, and appear most pure in that human form which either has no consciousness at all or possesses infinite consciousness – that is, either in a marionette or in a god.

If that happened, he concludes, it would be ‘the last chapter in the history of the world’. Here, again, we see the notion of a circuit, a loop of departure and return, of vanishing and re-appearance, that obeys the geometric logic of the asymptote: no joining the hyperbola before infinity, what Kleist calls ‘the point where both ends of the ring-shaped world unite’ – a point, we might say, of absolute feedback. What’s more, this would be the world’s last chapter – would reveal, that is, the world’s underlying nature as a form of literature, a book. For Lacan, a comparable tipping-towards-the-literary is sparked by the encounter with the mirror, which (as we’ve heard) reroutes the ego ‘in a fictional direction’. It’s worth indulging in a spot of corrective unrest of our own here, too, and pointing out that what I’ve been calling Kleist’s ‘essay’, while it clearly belongs to the essayistic or philosophical tradition, isn’t actually an essay: strictly speaking, it’s a piece of fiction, a short story. Literature, the mode that Plato expels from his philosophical Republic (or again to correct this: the mode that Plato’s character Socrates expels from the republic of philosophy that is itself rendered in fictional or dramatic, i.e. literary, form), is the mode par excellence in which dramas of this type come to the fore – dramas, that is, of ontology and metaphysics being subsumed, or perhaps undercut or ‘flipped’, by their constitutive literary substrates.


While recent critical orthodoxy might try to persuade us that the tendency of literature to break through the surface of the ‘natural’ order, to assert the latter’s foundations in metaphor, poesis and so forth, really came into its own with twentieth-century postmodernism or meta-fiction or some such, I’d argue that in fact it is as old as literature itself. Certainly as old as the novel. Consider, for example, the scene in Don Quixote (1605) in which the gentleman of leisure named Quixada or Quesada, head crammed full of fictions, hypnotised by the reflection he sees in the mirror of ‘enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, complaints, amours, torments, and abundance of stuff and impossibilities’ he’s spent so long gazing at, illusions that collectively compose his own imago, sets out on his first adventure:

‘I cannot but believe,’ he said to himself, ‘that when the history of my famous achievements shall be given to the world, the learned author will begin it in this very manner, when he comes to give an account of this my early setting out: “Scarce had the ruddy-coloured Phoebus begun to spread the golden tresses of his lovely hair over the vast surface of the earthly globe, and scarce had those feathered poets of the grove, the pretty painted birds, tuned their little pipes, to sing their early welcomes in soft melodious strains to the beautiful Aurora … when the renowned Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha, disdaining soft repose, forsook the voluptuous down, and mounting his famous steed Rozinante …”

Not only has Quixada/Quixote, in his bid for the heroic authenticity of knighthood, entered the realm of fiction, re-enacting scenes from penny-novels; on top of that, his only means of both articulating and even experiencing the present moment of this act (Heidegger’s Augenblick), of bathing in its full, unmediated truth or presence, is to route it, via an elaborate detour, through its future mediation: When the novel of this instant gets made … Quixote’s problem is the same as Kleist’s teenager’s, or Proust’s Marcel’s, or Mann’s Tonio Kröger’s: that of a hyperactive feedback loop between existence and consciousness, of experience’s overcoding by the cultural archive, of an overflow or excess of Erkenntnis that renders any form of pure, raw or unmediated being – that is, authentic being – impossible even as it strives for exactly this, not least because it does its striving, subsidises or supports it, in the very coin and tender of the inauthentic, the only currency available.

It’s the same problem that’s elaborated in a play written at more or less exactly the same time as as Don Quixote: Hamlet, whose (anti-)hero fails to grasp the mastery of fate to which he so desperately aspires because his approach route to this Augenblick is through the archive of dramatic theatre (The Murder of Gonzago, a modified version of which Hamlet has the players re-enact, thus feeding the diverted knowledge of his uncle’s crime right back into the motherboard of Elsinore court life); or through the mediating screens (aesthetic, rhetorical, philosophical and theological) of his Wittenberg education; not to mention through the all-pervasive feedback circuits of the play’s political world, loops of governance through which letters are scanned before being returned to their senders, rumours are spread, their spread tracked, à la Breitbart/Cambridge Analytica, by their creators, personal encounters surveilled, their information content reported, analysed, reacted to, thus generating outputs that themselves then generate new letters and encounters, on and on. Mallarmé’s take on Hamlet, namely that he’s ‘the latent lord who cannot become’, who ‘disputes with himself beneath the curse of having to appear’ (qui se débat sous le mal d’apparaître), may seem (like most of Mallarmé’s formulations) impossibly opaque – until we see it through the (equally opaque) lens of Lacan’s writing. Then it becomes crystal clear: apparaître means, simply, submitting to the Symbolic Order, the condition of appearance; to the realm of signification on which subjectivity and agency and everything that falls beneath the banner of the proper are utterly dependent and by which they’re simultaneously rendered impossible in any full or unified or ‘proper’ sense. ‘Appearing’, rather than bringing us into the fullness of our being, sets us at odds with ourselves, such that our I is nothing other than a name for our discordance or ‘debate’ with our reality.

Even when Hamlet does eventually kill the usurping, ‘fake’ king, this, far from finally rewarding his perseverance with the badge of a heroic authenticity, tips it over into farce: Hamlet’s blade finds its way into Claudius’s flesh by the most serendipitous route imaginable – almost by accident, the culmination of a slapstick sequence of haphazardly exchanged swords, poisoned cups sipped by lips for which they weren’t intended, and so on. By the same measure as ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ is not an essay but a short story, Hamlet is not really a tragedy, but a farce. If this talk has one concrete, or practical, or at least bibliothekographic proposition to make, it’s simply that this text be moved from its place in our libraries and re-shelved with Shakespeare’s other comedies. Nor should King Lear be too far from it: next to the body of Cordelia, that of the Fool. If tragedy is the aesthetic genre that reconciles the freedom of the subject with the necessity of the external world, providing him or her (usually him) with a route to a redemptive death that conveys authenticity on life, then comedy is the exact opposite: the splitting of the self, disintegration of the proper into insubstantiality. For Bergson (as Critchley and I and our many doubles reminded various audiences over a two-year stretch), the essence of comedy lies in the duplication that undermines uniqueness, in the replacement of the natural by artifice, and of uniqueness by repeating mechanisms: two similar faces, a repeated action – these things are funny. For Baudelaire (in ‘The Essence of Laughter’), it lies in a twofold fall: the fall from the divine into the human and the pratfall. I watch another man trip on the pavement and I laugh in sudden glory. Baudelaire goes on to claim that what distinguishes the literary man from others is that he can laugh at himself. That is, he can simultaneously be the one who trips and the one who watches the trip: he can split himself in two – what Baudelaire calls dédoublement. However, as Paul de Man points out in ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’, his essay on Baudelaire’s essay, once you’re split and reproduced you’re not unique anymore: you’re copied, fake. The ironic self-awareness of the poet can only be that of his own inauthenticity, repeated or fed back into itself at increasingly conscious levels, and ‘to know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic’. This knowing and this repetition, whether in the form of irony or allegory, de Man states by way of conclusion, ‘make up what is called literary history’.


Interestingly, de Man sees the passage from the 18th-century novel based on Schlegelian Parabase or permanent self-consciousness onwards to 19th-century realism not as progress but as regression – although, as Barthes shows us in S/Z, when we poke it for more than a minute we soon see that ‘realism (badly named, at any rate often badly interpreted) consists not in copying the real but in copying a (depicted) copy of the real’. In the twentieth century, of course, with figures like Joyce or Burroughs, realism more or less unravels; Matrix-like, we’re shown the code beneath the street, its wiring and configuration. I want to end by looking briefly at two instances, from the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, in which (to horribly mix metaphors) the dream of authenticity is dashed against the reef of feedback.

The first would be Kathy Acker’s œuvre in its entirety. Open almost any page of any of her books and you will land in medias res of a relentless assault on the notion of authenticity, played out on every imaginable channel: aesthetic, subjective, political and (small-l) literary, to name but a few. For Acker’s speakers, less ‘characters’ than temporary points of articulation, all subjective iteration is provisional, strategic, like a rebel camp set up in enemy territory then quickly struck before the powers-that-be get proper bearings on it. In Empire of the Senseless Janey states that ‘I, whoever I was going to be, would be a construct’, and frames exile as a ‘permanent condition … in terms of relationships and language./ In terms of identity’. In The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula a narrator whose name and status morph incessantly through centuries and across continents, in and out of source texts, writes that ‘I can see everything in a set of shifting frameworks. I’m interested solely in getting into someone else.’ Despite the use of the I pronoun, there’s no real or proper self here; only the other. No propriety in any sense: Acker’s work is ‘dirty’. Janey understands from a young age that she is ‘this unnameable dirt this thing. This is not a possible situation. This identity doesn’t exist.’ This sense of impurity extends to the proprietorial field: Acker, more even than Burroughs, takes the plagiaristic credo to her heart, not only copying and pasting left and right (from Flaubert, Dickens, Artaud, Guyotat, you name it), but even brazenly flagging up her plunders. ‘All the above events’, she writes at the end of one chapter of The Childlike Life,are taken from myself, ENTER MURDERERS! by E.H. Bierstadt, MURDER FOR PROFIT by W. Boitho, BLOOD IN THE PARLOR by D. Dunbar, ROGUES AND ADVENTURESSES by C Kingston.’ Another chapter she begins: ‘I MOVE TO SAN FRANCISCO. I BEGIN TO COPY MY FAVOURITE PORNOGRAPHY BOOKS AND BECOME THE MAIN PERSON IN EACH OF THEM.’

That one of her many plagiarism targets is none other than Don Quixote, which she rewrites under the same title (a double-plagiarism: not just of Cervantes but also of Borges, whose Pierre Menard has already done something like this), is significant: like Quixada/Quixote, her reader is placed ultimately less in medias res than, circuitously, in media media – that is, within a feedback loop of mediation, which is not of something else but itself primary, an origin that is both non-original and fatal to all fantasies of original or self-expression. Acker’s brilliant one-line manifesto, ‘I hate creativity’, should be held up as a riposte to the ‘creative writing’ industry that’s causing such a reactionary, if profitable, turn in English faculties across America and Europe, replacing critical engagement with the very ideology of authentic self-expression that Adorno so effectively excoriates. It should also (here’s another solid proposition) be inscribed across her gravestone.

The second instance is the work of David Lynch, who strikes me as someone whose filmography could be seen as an unpacking of Kleist’s marionette essay-cum-story – even if, like me when I was influenced by it, he hasn’t read it. A scene from The Elephant Man, whether by chance or by design, reprises to a T Kleist’s setting, showing puppets being manipulated in a fairground. Lynch’s whole universe is one of prosthetic manipulation, of mechanical control – think of the tar-coated demiurge who turns the crank at Eraserhead’s outset, initiating a process that will see the hapless Henry transformed into a cogged mechanism himself, a pencil-shaping press whose belts and punchers trundle through a set of automated repetitions. In virtually every film there are control rooms, from whose recesses figures of governance surveil events, relay instructions over phone wires, over radio and intercom, or even the induction loops of hearing aids. In Wild at Heart it’s gangsters who sit in the control rooms, calling hits down through the tele-voodoo-fibre-optic mesh that arches over the American South; in Mulholland Drive it’s sinister movie-producers, sending out coded messages whose content seem to somehow determine the composition of the very film we’re watching; by Inland Empire it’s mechanical rabbits, running (again) through automated sequences that also seem to contain some key or codex or perhaps command-chain governing the rest of the film’s programme; by Twin Peaksthe Return it’s immortals, replaying silent movies and old records in an editing suite at the end of time, whose reel they seem able to run forwards and backwards, to cut and splice at will.

Just as for Kleist, in Lynch the technological opens up onto the metaphysical or even theological. And, just as in Kleist, it does this in an utterly Lacanian manner. The weird ‘neighbour’ in Inland Empire’s opening scene tells the actress-heroine Nikki Grace (yes, Grace) two variants of an old folk tale in which first a boy, then a girl, passing by a mirror, catches sight of his or her reflection, and ‘evil is born’. Le mal d’apparaître. Later, on the movie set, in the large, dusty studio hangar, Nikki will set off on a long divagation along corridors made up of changing rooms, old sets, fragments of scenery and so on, eventually looping back to the scene of the rehearsal she’s wandered away from – and seeing, from the far side of a mirror, the director and her fellow actors and herself still there, right now, at the same table, speaking the lines that they’ve already spoken. Paraphrasing Lacan, Nikki whispers: ‘Oh, shit.’ From this point onwards, she’s irretrievably immersed in a world of multiple, fragmented repetition, with situations, characters and lines mutating as they flow from one context to another, reconfiguring themselves with every iteration; which is to say that she, ‘Nikki’, becomes nothing other than the image or illusion produced by this wandering, no longer even an imago but rather a stuttering mechanism in search of one, any imago that will hold some kind of reality scene together.

Then again, other Lynchean episodes seem to be taken straight from Hamlet. Think of Laura Palmer’s funeral: the argument between Bobby and James, Hamlet and Laertes, the farcical whining of the malfunctioning coffin-bearing mechanism as it rises, falls, rises again. In the graveyard, next to Ophelia, as to Cordelia, the joker, or at least his skull. Lynch’s murder scenes in particular, every bit as slapstick as the one at Hamlet’s finale, push death out of the pick-up zone for sublime-tragic redemption and send it tripping down to the divided and dividing gutter of the comic. Think of the encounter in Mulholland Drive’s shabby office in which one man assassinates another, then, wedging the silencer-tipped gun into the corpse’s fingers, accidentally discharges it again, shooting a bullet through the spit-and-sawdust wall which hits a woman in another office in the buttock, which woman he’s then obliged to murder also, this murder in turn being witnessed by the janitor, whom he’s then also forced to kill, leaving his vacuum cleaner (always the mechanisms) to whirr on, prompting the assassin to fire one into it, the vacuum cleaner, too, which starts a fire, which sets off the building’s sprinklers and alarms …

It’s later on in the same film, Mulholland Drive, that one of Lynch’s most extraordinary scenes occurs – once more, a scene featuring a kind of human-puppet interface. Rita and Betty wander into Club Silencio, a cabaret that’s all mechanics, with the singer miming to a pre-recorded tape. No apologist for realism, the show’s compère announces, Kathy Acker-like, at the show’s outset that each instrumental note and vocal strain that they will hear is pre-recorded: there’s no truth or nature, only artifice and playback. A flesh-and-bones singer then appears on stage, and mouths along to a Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ (‘Llorando’ – in reality recorded by Rebekah del Rio). As she does so, Rita and Betty, tear ducts activated by the song’s cranked-out instructions, start to cry.

Now this, from an aesthetic point of view, is risky: what it risks is a return to kitsch, emotive self-expression, to the real, to everything that Lynch’s set-up so meticulously negates; crying, after all, is bad art’s go-to shorthand or alt-shift-command shortcut to signal authenticity (think, as briefly as you can, of Bill Viola). Lynch, though, manages to stage it in a way that voids the act – crying – of all vestiges of these qualities and attributes conventionally assigned it: Betty and Rita’s crying is crying with no cause other than the one that travels to them down the number-logarithm vector llora, cry. It has no Ursprung, only Sprung, the springs and sockets of the playback mechanism in which they, too, are overwhelmingly – even passionately – enmeshed, to the point of total consumption. If the scene describes redemption, then it’s one not from but of or into irony – irony’s hypostasis, its Aufhebung or sublimation.

And yet – this is vital – the scene’s not ‘ironic’ in the term’s conventional sense. Watching it (I’ve done this many times in many contexts) audiences never smirk or chuckle; indeed, I’ve seen them cry too. The affect is there, but it’s an affect that is produced by mediation itself – produced, that is, by the expanded feedback loop alone; whose content, what’s more, is none other than the same. To turn on its head the criticism levelled by T. S. Eliot against Hamlet, and turn it into praise: it is affect without correlative. Or, if you prefer, absolute feedback; just as the tape’s reel rejoins the spool on the far side of the machine-head’s Rubicon, so some kind of asymptote has reached its infinity point here. And I, for one, feel grateful, grace-filled, to have witnessed it. Does it constitute the world’s last chapter? Perhaps not. But I’ll stake a claim for it as marking nonetheless a kind of break, a rupture or perhaps even rapture: ecstasy of inauthenticity, of ethics without subjects.

  • Subjektkritik
  • Jacques Lacan
  • Authentizität
  • Psychoanalyse
  • Identität
  • Gegenwartsliteratur

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Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy

ist Generalsekretär der International Necronautical Society, einem semi-fiktiven Avantgarde-Netzwerk, und hat zahlreiche Erzählungen und Essays veröffentlicht. »8½ Millionen«, sein erster Roman, erhielt 2008 den Believer Book Award. Seine Romane »C« (2010) und »Satin Island« (2015) standen auf der Shortlist des Man Booker Prize. Er lebt in Berlin.

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