Writers have long been fascinated by machinery – what it gives and what it takes away. Tom McCarthy, whose experimental work has been hailed as the future of fiction, charts literature's complicated relationship with technology, at once beautiful and menacing.
There's a scene in Don Quixote where the deluded would-be knight is listening to fulling mills. This is not the famous windmill scene: in that one, the machines are clearly visible; this one, by contrast, takes place in pitch-black night. Quixote, struck by the mills' rhythmic metallic clankings, persuades himself that they are the half-articulated groans and snarls of monsters. He's wrong, of course: they're mills. But then again, perhaps, in the way madmen sometimes are, he's right. Just maybe, in the looping chains of broken syllables, the clashing metre of compounded phonemes, he's picking up a message, a weak signal slowly forming in time's static: an announcement, for those astute enough to hear, of a monstrous age of mechanised industry lurking in the night of the future.
For centuries, literature has been haunted by technology. When Blake shudders in fearful awe before the tiger, don't be fooled into thinking that he's contemplating nature. What the animal, a product of "hammer", "chain", "furnace" and "anvil", really represents is the industrial revolution. Blake, like Quixote, grappled with dark satanic mills. His contemporary Mary Shelley also created monsters from machines: her Frankenstein, our culture's most enduring parable of technology gone haywire, was written largely in response to the replacement of human textile workers with automated looms, and the subsequent torching of cotton mills by Luddite armies of the newly unemployed. Mills again: perhaps it's no coincidence that they crop up so often. Arising at the intersection where the elements (wind, water) are harnessed by man's toolbox and plugged straight into his grid, they present themselves to the literary mind as symbols of technology in its most concentrated form: its birth, its architecture, its entire logic. Let's call it a technologics.
Melville wrote a whole story about a mill: "The Tartarus of Maids". Its narrator, a seed-trader in need of a good envelope-supplier, visits a paper mill and gazes in "strange dread" at the wheels and cylinders of the "inflexible iron animal", shocked by "the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it . . . the autocratic cunning of the machine". In the marriage of humanity and industrial apparatuses, it's clear who wears the trousers:
Machinery – that vaunted slave of humanity – here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels.
It's clear, too, that Melville isn't simply pondering the rise of machine culture in society at large. Etching his way on his horse, Black, across the snow-white valley where the mill lies, and wondering at the range of lawyers' briefs, doctors' prescriptions, pastors' sermons and so on that will be scrawled in ink on the reams of blank paper he's watching cascade off the rollers, the narrator is a carrier of a more self-reflective anxiety, one that concerns itself with the very act of writing. If man's autocracy, his genius, his powers of generation, have all passed to the machine, and if the pulpy, material base for the refined and abstract thoughts and emotions that we read in books has been revealed to us, then how can we understand poetry or prose as the sublime self-expression of autonomous and elevated individuals? Melville's answer is as implicit as his question: we can't, not any more.
If this technologics is already stirring in Cervantes, swelling in Blake and Shelley and coming to a head in Melville, then the moment that it fully breaks and floods the whole aesthetic landscape can be dated to the very day. On 20 February 1909, Filippo Tommaso MBlakearinetti published on the front page of Le Figaro his incendiary "Founding and Manifesto of Futurism". Wrapped in an account of a car crash that Marinetti in fact experienced (and which he celebrates here, in proto-Ballardian manner, as an episode of almost transcendent metallic beauty), the manifesto announces the new, superior aesthetic of the machine. "A racing car," reads the manifesto's fourth paragraph, "whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath – a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot – is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace." While the diagnostic move – acknowledging the machine's ascendency in art as well as industry – may be the same as Melville's, the attitude could not be more different: where Melville's narrator shivers with revulsion from beginning to end of "The Tartarus of Maids", Marinetti vibrates in his manifesto with a fiery enthusiasm that approaches ecstasy. "We will sing," reads paragraph 11, "of the vibrant nightly fervour of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd."
His technologics thus declared, Marinetti gathered around him an array of painters, poets and dramaturges, producing manifesto after manifesto as his movement gained momentum. Choreographers, he announces in "The Manifesto of Futurist Dance", shouldn't confine themselves to celebrating the muscular possibilities of the poor human body, but should imitate instead the sublime movements of pistons and levers as they emulate "the multiplied body of the motor". Orators, he decides in "Dynamic and Synoptic Declamation", should dehumanise themselves in similar fashion: the futurist declaimer must "metallise, liquefy, vegetalise, petrify and electrify his voice" and "gesticulate geometrically, thereby giving his arms the sharp rigidity of semaphore signals and lighthouse rays, to indicate the direction of forces, or of pistons and wheels". Painting, he declares in his "Manifesto of Aeropainting", is best done from an aeroplane: that way, the constraints of perspective are overcome, sky and landscape superimposed and jolted into motion, their elastic crescendos and diminuendos engendering new progressions of forms and colours. Half-way through that particular manifesto, he more or less leaves off considering what painting from a plane might look like, realising that the very fact of being in a plane itself constitutes a radical, dynamic form of art, an "aerosculpture" formed through a "harmonious and signifying composition of coloured smokes offered to the brushes of dawn and dusk, and long vibrant beams of electric light".
Painting – or writing. Again, as with the trajectory of Melville's Black across the white page of the snow, what Marinetti is really interested in here is the process of mark-making, of inscribing a blank sheet of sky. Despite issuing directives to followers in all mediums, the founder and manifestor of futurism remained a writer – and it's perhaps on this subject that his exhortations are most interesting. Explaining his conception of "words in freedom", he invokes the "lyric initiative" of electricity:
Nothing is more beautiful than a great humming central electric station that holds the hydraulic pressure of a mountain chain and the electric power of a vast horizon, synthesised in marble distribution panels bristling with dials, keyboards and shining communicators. These panels are our only models for the writing of poetry.
Here we could be back on the hillside with Quixote, listening to his monsters – for what is a power station if not a 20th-century mill, whose clanks have modulated into a continuous and seductive hum? Here, as in Cervantes, we have the literary sensibility and the machine thrown up against each other – only here in Marinetti, the machine has emerged from the darkness to scintillate in all its fine-tuned, networked, nuanced potentiality. It, and not the human who observes it, most embodies the possibility of literature. It is, in all senses of the word, a generator.
For me, the most interesting aspect of Marinetti's writing is not so much the range of poems, paintings and performances it produced in his immediate cohorts, but rather the way it names a tendency that shaped the work of writers who would never have considered themselves "futurists". Take Kafka: in his novels and short stories he reveals himself to be obsessed with what, by now, we should see as a three-way stand-off, or ménage à trois, between man, technology and writing. "In the Penal Colony", an account of a cruel punishment ritual in some (perhaps not so) far-away land, sees a condemned man strapped into a giant mechanical apparatus that, with an incising harrow guided by a scrolling punchcard-script, inscribes the law into his very skin. In the unfinished book America, we get a lavish description of Karl's writing desk, a large machine as complex as the penal torture apparatus: it has a "regulator" dial that sets its parts in motion, making some panels rise and others sink, reminding Karl of the mechanical Christmas displays he watched as a child. Karl later takes a job in a hotel which functions as a huge information-relay contraption, with boys scurrying from one floor to another carrying messages that have been dictated over phone-lines, written down, crossed-checked with ledgers to and from which other boys constantly dart – in short, a metaphorical cross between a computer and a novel-in-progress. Given the task of manning the lift, Karl realises sadly that he'll never fully understand its workings: the other lift-boy, despite six months in his post, "had never seen with his own eyes either the dynamo in the cellar or the inner mechanism of the lift, although, as he said himself, it would have delighted him".
Technology in Kafka is (like writing itself) positively gnostic: always on the verge of revealing some great, universal wonder – yet always withholding this revelation even as it seems to offer it. Look at this stunning passage from The Castle, in which K, confined to his humble inn, presses his ear to a telephone connecting him to a switchboard inside the castle to which he so yearns for ingress:
It was like the hum of countless children's voices – but yet not a hum, the echo rather of voices singing at an infinite distance – blended by sheer impossibility into one high but resonant sound which vibrated on the ear as if it were trying to penetrate beyond mere hearing.
Here again – humming, zinging, resonating on the edge of song and of intelligibility – is Marinetti's poetry machine. But this time, Marinetti's jubilation has given way to a sense of melancholy. K, of course, will never be admitted to the castle; and technology, by turns both beautiful and menacing, becomes above all the very shape and circuitry of what he lacks.
Technology and melancholia: an odd coupling, you might think. Yet it's one that has deep conceptual roots. For Freud, all technology is a prosthesis: the telephone (originally conceived as a hearing aid) an artificial ear, the camera an artificial eye, and so on. Strapping his prosthetic organs on, as Freud writes in Civilisation and its Discontents, man becomes magnificent, "a kind of god with artificial limbs" – "but" (he continues) "those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times". To put it another way: each technological appendage, to a large degree, embodies an absence, a loss. As the literary critic Laurence Rickels paraphrases it, laying particular emphasis (as Kafka does) on communication technology: "every point of contact between a body and its media extension marks the site of some secret burial".
For Rickels, the link between technology and mourning isn't merely Freudian and speculative, but also solidly historically grounded. In his excellent book Aberrations of Mourning: Writing on German Crypts, he points to the advent in the west of recording devices such as phonographs and gramophones before infant mortality rates had been reduced by mass inoculation, even among the better off. Many middle-class parents, following the fad for recording their children's voices, found themselves bereaved, and the plate or roll on which little Augustus's or Matilda's voice outlived him or her thus became a kind of tomb. "Dead children," Rickels writes, "inhabit vaults of the technical media which create them." Bereavement becomes the core of technologics; what communication technology inaugurates is, in effect, a cult of mourning – indeed, Rickels even suggests replacing the word "mourning" with the phrase "the audio and video broadcasts of improper burial". And the literature that emerges in the age of communications technologies – modernist literature – is this cult's expression, its record, its holy script.
Researching my own novel C, which takes place during precisely this period of emergence, I found evidence everywhere to support Rickels's claim. The telephone, it turns out, owes its invention to more than simply hearing-aid experiments. Alexander Bell, who grew up playing with mechanical speech devices (his father ran a school for deaf children), lost a brother in adolescence. As a result of this, he made a pact with his remaining brother: if a second one of them should die, the survivor would try to invent a device capable of receiving transmissions from beyond the grave – if such transmissions turned out to exist. Then the second brother did die; and Alexander, of course, invented the telephone. He probably would have invented it anyway, and in fact remained a sceptic and a rationalist throughout his life – but only because his brothers never called: the desire was there, wired right into the handset, which makes the phone itself a haunted apparatus.
A similar, if more collective, story goes for radio. Little more, in the first decade of the 20th century, than an obscure ship-to-shore relay mechanism eavesdropped on by a handful of teenage "wireless bugs", the medium burst into the public consciousness with the Titanic disaster. The ship had managed to send out an SOS before it went down, with the result that hundreds of passengers were rescued – indeed, many early newspaper reports emphasised this fact more than the loss of life. The inventor of wireless, Guglielmo Marconi, who was himself in mid-Atlantic passage at the time, was feted on his arrival in New York as a great saviour, while the share-price of his company shot through the roof. Yet as another literary critic, Jeffrey Sconce, points out in his book Haunted Media, as a result of this catastrophe-and-miracle-rolled-into-one, Marconi's device would henceforth be inextricably linked to "the image of unfortunate souls spread across the icy void of the Atlantic". When, a few years later, radio found a role in the first world war, the link was reinforced. As Sconce writes: "Orchestrated and reported by wireless, the appalling spectacle of trench warfare implicated the medium in another void of modernity, the barren expanses of what came to be called No Man's Land. There's even a novel from the period, by Grace Duffie Boylan, called Thy Son Liveth, in which a fallen radio operator transmits from the ether to (and here the family association rears its head once more) his mother.
Boylan's book may be fanciful, but the belief that the airwaves crackled with the dead was widespread, even among rationalists. If, as we moderns now knew, our "soul" – what animates us – is a set of electric impulses, does it not make sense that these should pass into the air and be detectable, "receivable" by wireless? Oliver Lodge, distinguished physicist and frequent lecturer at the Royal Institution – no crackpot outfit, but the very seat of British scientific research – thought so. He wrote a whole book about "communications" he'd had, via psychic "operators", with his own son Raymond, who'd died in the war. Séances grew exponentially in popularity (millions had, after all, lost their own Raymonds) and "upgraded" their vocabulary: where 19th-century mediums had used a rhetoric of "spirits", new ones talked of "frequencies", "signals" and "reception".
C takes place, specifically, between 1898 and 1922. The dates aren't accidental: they mark the period between Marconi's early short-distance radio experiments and the founding of that centralised state broadcaster of entertainment, news and propaganda that we still know as the BBC. In 1922, Britain was erecting, in its colonial territory Egypt, the first long-distance pylons of its proposed imperial wireless chain – and as it went about this, it lost Egypt, which gained independence in February of that year. For ancient Egyptians, "pylons" were gateways to the underworld: these modern ones came to symbolise bereavement on a national scale. In November, also in Egypt, Howard Carter disinterred what would become the most famous family crypt of all time. 1922 was also modernism's annus mirabilis, seeing the publication of The Waste Land, in which voices, dialogues and even weather reports drift in and out of audibility as its author-operator fiddles with his literary dial – and Ulysses, a huge textual switchboard in which the themes of death and media are plugged into each other time and again. As Leopold Bloom drifts from telegraph to post office, past advertising billboards to a newspaper printshop, he attends a funeral and ponders the possibility of placing gramophones in graves so that the dead might be revived in sound:
Put on poor old greatgrandfather. Kraahraark! Hellohellohello amawfullyglad kraark awfullygladaseeagain hellohello amawf krpthsth . . .
Bloom himself has lost a son, in childhood. Whether in literature or life, a melancholy technologics runs through the whole period, and these couplings – pylon-tombs, dead voices crackling in the ether or scored into the grooves of records – crop up with a persistence verging on the obsessive.
The pinnacle of literary modernism, its most sophisticated and extreme achievement, is Joyce's final novel, Finnegans Wake, published 17 years after Ulysses as the world stood on the brink of a new orgy of technology and death. Impossible to summarise in a sentence, the Wake has been variously interpreted as the babble running through a dreamer's head, a disquisition on the history of the world, ditto that of literature, a prophetic set of runes for our age, and a scatological tract so obscene that it had to be written in code to escape the censorship that had befallen Joyce's previous novel. But whichever way you read it, two things are certain: first, that (as the word "Wake" would suggest) it's a Book of the Dead, dotted with tombs and rites of mourning; and second, that the technological media people it at every level – telephones and gramophones, films and television and, above all, radio. We have "loftly marconimasts from Clifden" beaming "open tireless secrets . . . to Nova Scotia's listing sisterwands"; we have a "contact bridge of . . . sixty radiolumin lines . . . where GPO is zentrum" (the post office was the site of Radio Eireann); we have "that lionroar in the air again, the zoohoohoom of Felin make Call"; we even have disembodied voices shouting to each other to "get off my air!" According to the Joyce scholar and poet Jane Lewty, co-editor of Broadcasting Modernism, "the Wake can best be understood as a long radio-séance, with the hero tuning into voices of the dead via a radio set at his bedside, or, perhaps, inside his head." Perhaps, she concedes when I push the point with her, the "hero" might even be the radio set itself.
Listening to deathly voices in the dark, from Quixote's moment on the hillside onwards, technologics has suggested, to those who want to listen to its broadcasts, a new, dynamic way of understanding literature – that is, of understanding what it is to write, who (or what) writes, and how to read it. Where the liberal-humanist sensibility has always held the literary work to be a form of self-expression, a meticulous sculpting of the thoughts and feelings of an isolated individual who has mastered his or her poetic craft, a technologically savvy sensibility might see it completely differently: as a set of transmissions, filtered through subjects whom technology and the live word have ruptured, broken open, made receptive. I know which side I'm on: the more books I write, the more convinced I become that what we encounter in a novel is not selves, but networks; that what we hear in poems is (to use the language of communications technology) not signal but noise. The German poet Rilke had a word for it: Geräusch, the crackle of the universe, angels dancing in the static. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/]
price: £12.99-RRP: £16.99
Publisher: JONATHAN CAPE
Publication Date : 05/08/2010
Guardian Bookshop Notes:
Tom McCarthy follows-up cult hit "Remainder" with a novel reminiscent of Bolano, Beckett and Pynchon. It follows the short intense life of Serge Carrefax, a man who surges into the electric modernity of the 20th century, transfixed by technologies that will obliterate him.
Born to the sound of one of the very earliest experimental wireless stations, Serge finds himself steeped in a weird world of transmissions, whose very air seems filled with cryptic and poetic signals of all kinds. When personal loss strikes him in his adolescence, this world takes on a darker and more morbid aspect.