21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Infrastructure and the Anthropocene in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island

Andy Hageman

 

At the beginning of Agamemnon you see this signal and then Clytemnestra comes out and says that Troy has fallen. She spends about two lines saying that and then another seventy lines or more describing every beacon between Troy and Argos. She’s a nerd: she’s describing a data network.

Tom McCarthy, RecessionalOr, The Time of the Hammer, p. 55

 

What is it like to be stuck, night and day, dreaming of infrastructure?

Patricia Yeager, “Introduction: Dreaming of Infrastructure,” p.15

 

To read a Tom McCarthy novel is to find oneself weirdly and wildly awash in grids within grids, maps within maps, of infrastructural objects and systems. Protagonists and minor characters alike obsess over these objects and systems of infrastructure—over their grandeur, their minutiae, their flows and flaws, slows and jams, their symbolic ideological concretizations, their masterful and/or absurd designs, their volumes of strata.

In all four of McCarthy’s novels to date—Remainder (2005), Men in Space (2007), (2010), and Satin Island (2015)—the protagonists experience radical transformations. Their developments, like the very plots themselves, unfold to reveal manifold mutual imbrications of the people and infrastructure that permeates the planet, from densely populated mega-cities to deserts and ocean floors where few or no people reside. What is uniquely noteworthy in Tom McCarthy’s infrastructures is that, in a weird paradox, the more his freeways and oil pipelines and telecom pylons and sky cranes and transportation-transponder buildings hove into view, the more this newly visible infrastructure withdraws into recondite mystery. To be sure, these objects and systems embody the ideologies, technologies, and political economies of their origins, construction, and upkeep or neglect. And McCarthy’s protagonists and other narratorial channels often already provide astonishingly insightful infrastructural analytical readings of these objects and systems within the novels themselves. And yet, these novels exceed any simple coding of their infrastructures as expressions of the forms of neoliberal capitalism they explore and expatiate, which means that these novels resist singular categorization of its infrastructural elements under mega-, or is it meta-, infrastructural culprits such as Capital. Rather, Capital appears as one strata, albeit a dominant one, among many.

 

mccarthy-covers

Objects and systems: British author Tom McCarthy's published novels to date examine the imbrications between people and infrastructure

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

 

Satin Island is the McCarthy novel that offers some of his most sustained and focused attention to infrastructure. The first-person protagonist narrator is named U. After completing his Ph.D. in anthropology, he joins a cutting edge tech-logistics firm where he is tasked by Peyman, the cult-of-personality style executive, with compiling the Great Report—a zeitgeist seismographic assignment so nebulous the potential use of which he cannot decipher, nor whether it might be a practical joke being played on him. Still, as he tries to discern what his work, in fact, is, U closely explores infrastructures of petroleum mining, distribution, and consumption as well as digital infrastructures of data mining, distribution, and consumption. These interests coincide with a massive oil spill that begins at almost exactly the same time that Peyman’s firm wins a contract to do some unspecified work on a massive, paradigm-changing, and nebulously data-network-related Koob-Sassen Project. This infrastructural pair reflects industrial and so-called post-industrial economic modes and in the process conjures up the weirdness of their coexistence as disparate foundations of contemporary life, at least in the Global North.

In its uncontainable multiplicity the roads, machines, wells, wires, and networks populating Satin Island align significantly with core ideas about Infrastructuralism as it has been articulated by Michael Rubenstein, Bruce Robbins, and Sophia Beal in their introduction to their landmark special issue of Modern Fiction Studies from 2015. These critics claim that “[w]hen it’s not exploding, infrastructure is supposed to be boring, practically by definition… For infrastructuralists, however, the inherent boringness of infrastructure is paradoxically a big part of what makes it theoretically so fascinating” (576). Now consider the infrastructures of petroleum mining, distribution, and consumption in Satin Island. On the one hand, U is captivated by a massive underwater leak when an offshore oil rig malfunctions—an event that brings the heretofore invisible infrastructure of mining into full view, or, perhaps into full but indirect view since the broken equipment is indicated by the blossoms of black crude in the surrounding water rather than by direct representation. On the other hand, however, a wide array of infrastructure in Satin Island is running smoothly, far from broken. Such functional infrastructure becomes visible because U’s gaze is increasingly attuned to such materials. This second aspect of the novel coincides more with a second claim by Rubenstein, Robbins, and  Beal: “Infrastructure’s boringness, its unsexiness, results from its distance from the glamor of the commodity and its alignment with the commons and the common good” (577). As an anthropologist, U has a trained curiosity about human practices that include the common good and not just commodity fetishism. In fact, I suspect part of U’s bafflement about his job objectives stems from Peyman’s perhaps counterintuitive move to study, instrumentalize, and colonize the non-commodity material of the world, including infrastructure. 

Before turning to a set of selected close readings, an explanation of how this rigorous analysis of infrastructure in Satin Island relates to the Anthropocene. One principle object/system of U’s investigations is petroleum infrastructure, from the undersea oil spill to the tarmac roadways of Paris and Lagos; the other principle object/system is the materiality of big data. Petroleum is what has fueled the geological inscription humans continue to make on the planetary earth-system, and big data machines and networks are what enable us to perceive, model, and plan to respond to these Anthropocene inscriptions. Because Satin Island is so insistently infrastructural, it creates an uncanny aesthetic exploration of what the Anthropocene might be and what it might mean for people and planet.

 

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The industrial meets the post-industrial: McCarthy's 2015 novel Satin Island moves from oil infrastructure to the invisible world of big data

[Image by Peter Ma under a CC BY license]

 

A poignant example of how U’s curiosity about petroleum and data infrastructures converge is a scene when he stops by the office of his colleague, Danny, who’s poring over a video shot to aid in the nebulous variety of investigation they both conduct. In the video, rollerbladers in Paris participate in what Daniel explains to be “Manifestation sans Plainte… a Demonstration With No Complaint” (58). As they watch, U fixes his gaze not on the human demonstrators but on the petroleum-byproduct infused infrastructure of the street. He is moved to comment on what is to him the remarkable smoothness of the street surface that paves the way for this form-without-content protest:

Paris, Daniel explained when I commented on the pavement’s texture, has the smoothest street surface of any major European city. It’s because of sixty-eight, he said, the general uprisings, when revolutionaries pulled up all the cobblestones to throw them at the cops. They even had a slogan stirring them to do this: Underneath the paving stones, the beach! After that, he explained, the authorities replaced the paving stones with tarmac—which had the unforeseen effect of turning the city into a paradise for roller-bladers. (58)

This excavation of Parisian street strata that U thinks to pursue, and Daniel helps to uncover, exemplifies infrastructural anthropology: to ask and ask about, to dig and dig into, infrastructure objects and systems out of open curiosity and, only when the multiple sediments and folds are exposed, to interpret them as texts. It turns out that contemporary Parisian tarmac embodies a political power play against previous protests where infrastructure was the site and stakes of the struggle. To extend the oft-quoted William Gibson truism: “the street finds its own uses for things,” here the street has found its own uses for the street. What is more, even as this attempted power paving inadvertently engendered a new form and flow of urban protest, this very same Parisian tarmac also embodies an intentional and directed oil spill, a covering of the planet’s surface with the sticky, stony remainders of oil refining. As such, the anti-capitalist gesture via the mention of “sixty-eight” exists only as one of many explanations for the history embedded in this strata data.

Later in Satin Island, after U has researched the oil spill, which he refers to in the singular since there is always a massive oil spill happening somewhere and has been for decades, he daydreams of delivering an academic conference talk that ushers in a new paradigm by extolling the virtues of the oil spill as an infrastructural portal to all manner of positive illuminations and consequences. This fantasy includes an antagonist who accuses U of aestheticizing the defilement of nature, to which he responds:

I’m “aestheticizing” it? Gentlemen, I’d reason, opening my arms to the serried ranks of allies; was it not he who first used the term tragedy?… Who, I’d continue, cast the first aesthetic stone? The truth is, that these people’s (for behind this man there lay a much larger constituency: they’d be there, too, dotted about the streets around the conferencing centre, and in homes throughout the city, and in other cities, purchasing ecologically sourced products, sponsoring zoo animals and so forth)—these people’s entire mindset is a product of aesthetics. They dislike the oil spill for the way it makes the coastline look “not right,” prevents it from illustrating the vision of nature that’s been handed down from theologians to romantic poets to explorers, tourists, television viewers: as sublime, virginal, and pure. Kitsch, I tell you (here I’d thump by fist onto the podium, three times in quick succession): kitsch, kitsch, kitsch! And wrong: for what is oil but nature? (115-116)

At the core of U’s perhaps counterintuitive diatribe is the revelation that everything now coated with oil must be understood as bearing a secondary, rather than primary, inscription. Previously the biophysical matter of the coastline served as aesthetic infrastructure, circulating ideologies of “Nature” that worked to erase the constructedness of their forms and contents. Or, to put it differently, we must not misrecognize the oil spill for an Anthropocene overlay atop a pristine world because what its visibility actually makes legible is the Anthropocene overlay that painted the world that way in the first place. Notice also that U doesn’t pin this ideological perpetuation exclusively on Capital. Rather, the culprit is a constellation: theology, Romantic poets, and travel television programming that used the trees and shores and waters as communications infrastructure, whether consciously or not. Finally, in U’s concluding remark that “oil is nature,” there is something of Slavoj Žižek’s segment in the Astra Taylor book-and-film Examined Life where he claims that coal and oil are irrefutable, yet fetishistically disavowed, evidence that the geologenealogy of the planet is a series of “unimaginable catastrophes” and not a harmonious balance that humanity has disturbed.

 

Examined Life: Slavoj Žižek reminds us that coal and oil are both irrefutable and fetishistically disavowed

 

U continues his conference keynote with a deeply similar statement: “When oil spills, Earth opens its archive” (118). The core difference between U and Žižek here is that the latter is describing our process of fetishistic disavowal when infrastructure is functioning (we might note that Žižek opens his segment with his oft-told comment that when we flush the toilet part of us believes that our shit disappears) while U is describing the breakthrough opportunities when infrastructure is broken. U is concerned not only with oil and with us but with every object and system involved in finding, mining, processing, distributing, and consuming petroleum products. So, while Žižek traces looming ecological catastrophe to capitalism, U hangs out with the materials to read all the strata. To be sure, U does not seem to model a satisfactory analyst or activist, yet his disoriented bafflement is committed, critical, and tied to material conditions of life in extremely compelling ways.

On the notion of analytical activist, U does undergo a sea change late in the novel, deciding that the Koob-Sassen Project is in fact sinister and must be dismantled. But U gets flustered when he tries to hatch a saboteur’s plot: “What was to criticize or attack? There was no building, no Project Headquarters or Central Co-ordination Bureau… The Project was supra-governmental, supra-national, supra-everything—and infra- too: that’s what made it so effective, and so deadly” (135). This passage echoes one of the intercalary chapters in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, when an Oklahoma farmer being driven off his land demands to know on whom he can get revenge:

“Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.”

The driver said, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.’”

“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”

“I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t met at all. Maybe, like you said, the property’s doing it. Anyway, I told you my orders.” (38)

Once more, McCarthy elides the seemingly ready-made leap from consternation to Capital, lingering instead on the weird materiality of infrastructures that create such consternation even as they eliminate the means to respond to it. But is this a matter of eliminating or concealing? While The Grapes of Wrath leveraged its scene as one of its many arguments for labor organization, the prospect of unions does not remain the same in Satin Island, and U doesn’t display a hint of interest in a Hardt & Negri vision of networked multitudes. No, U is something radically different as he investigates relentlessly the multiple strata of infrastructural objects and systems that mark the planet on the surface, down into its archives, and up into the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and radio waves.

 

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The coming catastrophe: how does the infrastructure of oil production relate to our understanding of the Anthropocene epoch?

[Image by Giuseppe Milo under a CC BY-NC license]

 

U is never working on the Anthropocene directly, yet he is working on in a manner not unlike Tom Cohen’s in Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols, where he claims:

Of course, as with Oedipus, it is fruitless to look for the cause of the wreckage or to defer some coming catastrophe; we are in the middle of it already, or in fact late, in a twilight of sorts, since from the point of view of any other contemporary life form or living system, “we” are the catastrophe. This is why it is the term “extractivism,” which is more primordial and, arguably, precedes even “Capital” heard or thought as a totalizing evil agency that we resist but are caught up in. (27-28)

Precisely this idea of being human as being extractivist appears in an illuminating non-event of Satin Island, when U visits a graduate program friend, Claudia, at the Frankfurt Anthropology Museum, which by the way is housed in a former public transport transponder system building. The visit concludes in an African collection where U is fascinated by an unformed black lump of matter—a fascination that continues to haunt him: “It’s caoutchouc, Claudia had said, seeing me staring at it: rubber, in its raw form. Now, looking through the window [on the flight back to London] at the bulbous clouds that, once again, were slightly smudged, I thought of this caoutchouc; then of Petr’s cancer; then, once more, of spilled oil” (109). U’s reflection, like all of Satin Island, is haunted by strata upon strata of black matter—the ooze of Earth, the ooze of human history; our lifeblood and the ultimate future of us all as well.

But, like mirror opposites of the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, these layers of pitch-black matter that we shape into infrastructure are indigenous to this planet and carry no mysterious implications of aliens or gods. Still, Satin Island seems to suggest, we go on mining and building, circulating, communicating, living.

For now.

 

CITATION: Andy Hageman, "Infrastructure and the Anthropocene in Tom McCarthy's Satin Island," Alluvium, Vol. 5, No. 4 (2016): n. pag. Web. 30 October 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v5.4.03.

 

Dr Andy Hageman is Assistant Professor of English at Luther College where he teaches courses in American literature, film, ecocriticism, and speculative fiction. Andy researches intersections of technoculture and ecology in the social imaginary and his publication subjects run from David Lynch’s cinema/television and William Gibson’s science fiction novels to Ecocinema theory and the machine trope “wheels within wheels” as it has rolled through multiple millennia and media. He is currently working on a book about speculative fiction and the Anthropocene. 

 

Works Cited:

2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, MGM, 1968.

Cohen, Tom, Claire Colebrook and J. Hillis Miller. Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols. London: Open Humanities Press, 2016.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2005.

McCarthy, Tom. C. New York: Vintage, 2011.

—. Men in Space. New York: Vintage, 2012.

—. Recessional—Or, The Time of the Hammer. Zurich: Diaphanes, 2016.

—. Remainder. New York: Vintage, 2007.

—. Satin Island. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Rubenstein, Michael, Bruce Robbins and Sophia Beal. “Infrastructuralism: An Introduction.” Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Winter 2015): 575-586.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Yeager, Patricia. “Introduction: Dreaming of Infrastructure.” PMLA, Vol. 122, No. 1 (January 2007): 9-26.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Slavoj Žižek: Ecology.” Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers, edited by Astra Taylor, New York: New Press, 2009, 155-184.

 

 

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