Is there hope for U?

Christopher Tayler

  • Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
    Cape, 192 pp, £16.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 224 09019 3

By the end of the 1980s, two formerly arcane disciplines with roots in the French 1940s were readily available to British aspirants. One was post-structuralism, which not many years earlier you’d have had to go to Paris or New Haven to hear about. Now you could pick up the rudiments of it in any university town, and though there was still an exciting whiff of controversy around ‘theory’, a topic known to make right-wing broadsheets and Oxbridge fellows see red, there were many well-written bluffer’s guides, headed up by Terry Eagleton’s. The other discipline was sampling, which originated with the mad scientists of musique concrète and spread into pop in ways that demanded either rock star-size funds – only the likes of Kate Bush could afford the first ‘computer musical instruments’ – or, in the case of hip-hop, dexterity and staying power with mixers and turntables. Cheaper units like the E-mu SP-1200, launched in 1987, made it relatively easy to create whole albums out of chopped-up clips from old records. Six seconds of drumming from ‘Amen, Brother’, a B-side released in 1969 by a funk outfit called the Winstons, became the basis of several genres of dance music in the early 1990s.

If you were a literary type coming of age around then and in revolt against tweediness, it was hard not to feel that the second of these developments had an occult connection to the first. You might not have been too sure if ‘postmodernism’ was a condition imposed by history or something you could try at home, but either way it seemed fine to speak with great confidence, under its capacious umbrella, of lines running – as Eagleton might have put it – from Baudrillard to the Beastie Boys. It was easy to agree that all writing was ‘a tissue of quotations’, and that the writer’s ‘only power is to mix’, as Roland Barthes taught, when DJ Shadow was riding high. Techno’s imagery fitted well with the traces and fields that post-structuralism traded in, and the rave scene’s communal, anti-starry ethos could with a bit of imaginative effort be seen as another form of disdain for the bourgeois humanist subject. If you were, say, a stoned Oxford undergraduate in 1995 (a state Derrida himself might not have judged too harshly: hadn’t his translator judged it OK to have him write of memory in the Phaedrus ‘letting itself get stoned by its own signs’?), you might have caught yourself suspecting that the refrain from the Prodigy’s ‘Poison’ – ‘I’ve got the poison! I’ve got the remedy!’ – was a kind of breakbeat version of ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’.

For my cohort of students, all this gave an alluringly zeitgeisty air to ideas that had been formulated before most of us were born and in contexts we didn’t know much about. That wasn’t a problem if, like me, you’d decided that modernity lived chiefly in 1922, and that most writing since Molloy or thereabouts was a series of failures to catch up. Derrida was a fan of Joyce and Beckett, and for students of literature a lot of his clout derived from them, rather as Pound’s pronouncements had been backed up by Eliot’s poetry. Now that their teachings were widely disseminated, perhaps the Parisian thinkers of 1968 would serve a new wave of writers as a conduit for those lost energies. It was important, too, that the cardinal names were from the Continent. From reading progressive newspapers we knew that Europe was the future; its parliament, if not exactly sexy, at least made John Major’s backbenchers foam at the mouth. And maybe Derrida’s trademarked ‘always already’, or Barthes’s writer who ‘can only imitate a gesture that is … never original’, spoke with more than usual force, in those end-of-historyish times, to our late adolescent feelings of belatedness.

As we, or I, slowly realised, however, our belatedness went further than we’d thought. By the mid-1990s it was clear to all but the most cobwebbed of our instructors that theory wasn’t the intellectual crack epidemic some had feared. Dust was settling on the scuffles of the 1970s and 1980s, and if it was no longer unsettlingly radical to read Discipline and Punish or bits of the Ecrits, it was no longer a mark of the blackest reaction to allow that Foucault was impressionistic with facts or that Lacan manifested cult-leaderish tendencies. The academic careers to be built on theory had largely been built; the hardest-core young Derridean among our teachers later drifted off into management consultancy and wasn’t alone in doing so. And the French-style rhetorical flourishes that some of us were quite taken with didn’t always survive first contact with the actually existing literary world, in which editors were all too likely to pounce – as an editor does in Tom McCarthy’s novel Men in Space when a character slips talk of ‘the Western epistème’ into an art review – on instances of ‘pretentious bollocks’. After discovering Pierre Bourdieu, I even began to wonder if a taste for difficult, academically consecrated writers was as big a leap away from the status-prizing values of an expensive education and South-Eastern English background as I’d supposed.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in