Literary Violence

THIS IS THE EIGHTH in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with the British novelist and writer Tom McCarthy, whose latest books include Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish and Satin Island.


BRAD EVANS: I recently had the pleasure of reading your eclectic mix of published essays, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish. Fully in keeping with your broader literary corpus, what strikes from the outset is a distinct fascination with violence in both implicit and explicit forms in your work. Why does the problem of violence continue to capture your attention as an author?

TOM MCCARTHY: It seems to me that it has always been at the core of the literary experience in some form or other. This goes all the way back to the Greeks, for whom space is usually grounded in primal acts of violence. The city or polis of Oedipus Rex, the urban and political order of Thebes, is built on the murder or Laius, who himself abducted and raped Chrysippus. The political order of Athens — the cornerstone of modern democracy — is built in the Oresteia on the murder of Clytemnestra, who herself murdered Agamemnon, whose own father butchered Thyestes’ children. It goes back and back. Faulkner has this brilliant image in Absalom, Absalom!, a novel that unearths a family back-history of slavery and war and incest, where Quentin muses that an event is not a unique occurrence, but more like a set of ripples on a pool that itself is connected by an umbilical water-cord to another pool in which a stone was dropped — but you don’t see the stone dropping in the first pool; you only see the ripples in the second. It’s less an event than event-field — an expansive zone whose patterns are both set by and bear witness to an ur-trauma.

Freud sees all mental and biological life like this: we’re just jellyfish, replaying the original shock of photosynthesis as we propel ourselves deathward. What’s really interesting about this particular image is that Freud couches it within a larger consideration of those magic writing-pad toys that kids still play with — the ones where the upper, waxy-paper surface can be erased and written over again and again, but the lower, gelatinous one retains all the traces. This is his decisive model for consciousness: a writing machine scored with the wounds of time.

The collection of essays is littered with literary references, from Joyce and Pynchon to Kafka. What is it about these authors that collectively still resonate in terms of understanding both the timelessness of tragedy and yet the contingency of the modern condition?

I wouldn’t say tragedy is timeless. It has its temporality — a complex one. On the one hand, it’s backward-facing, like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history (who, where humans see “progress,” instead discerns a trail of debris, wreckage upon wreckage piled up behind him); on the other hand, it moves forward toward some inexorable conclusion. I would question the notion of an exclusively “modern” condition, too. What interests me about the best takes on the modern is their primitivism. So Joyce sees in 20th-century telecoms “loftly marconimasts from Cliften” beaming “open tireless secrets […] to Nova Scotia’s listing sisterwands,” and “television kill[ing] telephony in brothers brawl” — in other words, he sees these technologies playing out ancient Egyptian incest stories and Biblical tales of fratricide. Similarly, Pynchon finds something totally regressive in state-of-the-art rocketry: his V2 is a repository of all these Brothers Grimm fables and Holy Grail myths and so on. It’s this overlay of times and temporalities that interests me.

Your writing style is widely acclaimed for its attention to intricate details. This collection is no exception as it attends to the various ways human are immersed into various organizing systems — from the ecological to the technological, which continue to do great violence upon human and nonhuman bodies. What is to be gained by insisting as an author upon such detailed ecological and technological framings?

These things you identify here — systems and framings — are everything. Subjects that traditionalists might think of as the “true content” of literature — such as truth, or justice, or feelings, or subjectivity itself — are only possible within these systems, and inseparable from them. To understand one we must understand the other — and this understanding must by necessity (since it’s of structures and infrastructures) be structural. That’s what I love about Kafka: he completely undoes humanist “psychology” by making psychic space indivisible from the whole architecture of communication and containment that forms — to adapt your own term — its ecosystem. Josef K.’s anguish and anxiety are spun into existence around the corridors and waiting rooms and courtyards, the files and back-up files and general feedback loops of juridical bureaucracy. It’s similar in Lynch’s films: to get a grip on them you have to map their relays and the layout of their spaces — which room opens to which other cell or chamber, which phone (or intercom, or CCTV, or cryptic utterance) is connected (via which operator) to which sender or receiver … Like Freddie says in Inland Empire: “There’s a vast network, an ocean of possibilities.”

I’d like to turn to your philosophical influences. Alongside the literary acknowledgments, the essays are also notably populated with the voices of Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, and Derrida. I am particularly interested in the latter and the idea that we are already walking among the ruins of the future. What are your thoughts on this, especially when thinking about the violence of cityscapes?

Ballard says that we have annexed the future into the present. That’s a kind of collapse, a ruination — materially, in Ballard’s own novels, it translates into endless visions of ruined cityscapes. Every great city, at least when it writes itself, seems to anticipate its own destruction: so in The Waste Land, London becomes Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, all burning with towers falling and so on. In Robbe-Grillet’s Topology of a Phantom City, he doesn’t even give the city a name: it’s just “the city,” already an archaeological ruin even before it’s built, replaying in its theaters and frescoes various scenes that dance around the central episode of its own sacking. I like how when Gerhard Richter paints Paris, the deliberate blurs and smudges make it look like it’s being nuked, like Marker’s apocalyptic photo-montage in La Jetée. And then Richter’s Paris painting is already (since it’s depicted from the skies above the city) framed by the picture he made a few years earlier of bomber planes; visually, painting and bombing become one and the same thing. I’m also very struck by Eldridge Cleaver’s call for revolutionaries to reimagine urban space as a war zone: streets criss-crossed by armored vehicles, the sound of tommy guns and snipers’ rifles, barbed wire closing off whole sections of the city, “and everywhere the smell of cordite.” It’s political of course — but it’s aesthetic, too.

I was particularly taken by the scene you depict concerning Patty Hearst, especially the final meditation on “America” as captured in a hotel room “watching the apocalypse on television.” This description seems tragically apt for the contemporary moment — albeit with the added drama of new mobile technologies, which offer new ways to capture the gaze. Is this how you still recognize America in the contemporary moment?

Patty Hearst is a figure who fascinates me. I think there should be statues to her all over the United States; hers is one of the great American stories. Revolution, self-reinvention, celebrity, catastrophe, all played out in real time on the broadcast networks. The SLA kidnapped Citizen Kane’s granddaughter and then tried to talk her into going to see a screening of the film — there’s an involution, an accretion, an overload of cultural histories there that’s teetering on the edge of collapse. The fact that she’s a woman is significant. I’ve been rereading lots of Kathy Acker recently — a writer who’s also fascinated with the figure of the urban guerrilla whose operations straddle the fields of the recognizably “militaristic” (raids with guns and bombs) and the symbolic — what DeLillo calls “raids on consciousness.” And reading Acker sent me back to the work of the philosopher Julia Kristeva, whom she leans on heavily. Again, this is a figure whose heyday was the 1980s — but it’s uncanny rereading her now, because her work is all about the relationship between technological or linguistic systems and bodies and power, and questions of inclusion and exclusion. Feminism — in particular French feminism of several decades ago — seems to anticipate so much of what’s at stake under the Trump regime, and to map it out really well.

There is a wonderful moment in the book when you consider the question of realism. Predating much of this contemporary fixation with so-called “fake news,” there is an evident frustration in your voice to the marked separation between the fictional and the real, as if the likes of Nietzsche and Foucault never actually walked this earth! Sharing these concerns, what political role do you think fiction has to play in a moment where the fabrications of power are being countered by remarkable positivist purity for unconditional truths?

I try to undo the distinction that’s usually made between “fiction” and “reality,” as though “fiction” were synonymous with fakery. I don’t think that’s the right layout to work with; I think there’s something else going on. In Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, I try to argue that “fiction” is best understood in terms of a gap or interim, a delay or décalage — what Hamlet calls an out-of-jointness. Another way of thinking about this would be (and this perhaps goes back to Faulkner’s ripple image) as a kind of asynchronic overlay. And vitally, what this overlay gives rise to, in its collisions and its recesses, is a possibility — and an ethics — of witnessing. Tell him we were here, says Vladimir to the boy-angel amid all the replays and repetition loops and waiting periods of Godot: Don’t turn up here tomorrow and deny you ever saw me. Then, watching Estragon sleeping, he asks himself, “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?”; and he muses that someone is also watching over him (Vladimir) and thinking: “He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.” Now, of course someone is watching him — it’s a play! But beyond that, I think Beckett is invoking the notion of literature as a shared or consensual hallucination in which the act of witnessing, of affirming the existence of “the others,” becomes possible. This is not a journalistic or “scientific” act; it’s ultimately an imaginative one, an act of the imagination.

To conclude, I’d like to deal with the literary question of death. As you have written, every period proclaims and indeed celebrates the death of the novel. You have also suggested that Joyce in particular exhausted all literary possibilities. I want to press you on this idea of exhaustion, which Deleuze argued was central to the emergence of new forms of subjectivity. How might we think about this in terms of “inventing” (a phrase you dwell upon in the book) better styles for living?

While writing the more recent of these essays, over the last few years, I became obsessed with Mallarmé. He sees literature very much in terms of exhaustion, and rites of burial and interment. So his (non-)character Igitur experiences all of cultural history as a tomb, or crypt, into which he has to descend in an attempt to bring about his own extinction — but of course he doesn’t bring this about, he brings about the work. Similarly in the wild, typographically exploded poem “A Throw of the Dice,” the Master, “corpse at his arm,” is going down for the third time as the ship of poetry disintegrates on the rock of oblivion and chance — and of course it’s from this very abyss or void that literary modernity is born. Mallarmé spent the last decades of his life trying to bring into existence a giant, expanded, multimedia Gesamtkunstwerk that he called “The Book,” which would somehow contain absolutely everything ever. But he never realized this: it remained in a state of imminence or potentiality — and half of 20th-century literature and visual art and music, from Joyce to Duchamp to Cage, responds to that potentiality, that call — but without realizing or completing it either. The “Book” is always and inherently to-come. That’s where Derrida gets his idea of democracy from: it’s always and inherently to-come, too. It needs to be invented — a task that’s both exhaustive and inexhaustible. Ballard says a similar thing, about reality tout court: it’s not there yet; the writer needs to invent it.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.