The Thing Itself: A Written Conversation about an Evening with the INS

CHARLES PETERSEN: Anything calling itself the International Necronautical Society has to be a joke, right? This question was, in a sense, the premise behind the interrogation of INS co-founders Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley by the editors of Triple Canopy and their friends at their performance space at 177 Livingston in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. How can anything that calls itself an organ of a “semi-fictitious avant-garde” be taken seriously? (It’s hard enough to take anything that calls itself avant-garde seriously, even without the “semi-fictitious” qualification.) What made the event so odd, and also, to my surprise, revealing, was that McCarthy and Critchley, rather than persisting with the mild absurdities that had until then characterized their activities, over the course of the evening became unexpectedly earnest. They really were serious! Faced with a raised platform of five “inquisitors,” all dressed in black, McCarthy and Critchley took little interest in playing their expected roles, and instead responded to even the most ridiculous inquiries (“How does your goatee help in the study of death?”) with impatience and exasperation, followed by straightforward explanation. (“It’s not a goatee . . . and besides, the eternal breachedness of death . . .”)

RYAN RUBY: The INS’s founding manifesto was published as a small advertisement in the Times of London in 1999, next to an article about a financier’s bid to take over British retail chain Marks & Spenser. Consisting of a set of gnomic utterances, it declares the society’s intention to “map, enter, colonize, and eventually inhabit” the space of death; its intention to sing death’s beauty and bring death out into the world; its intention to “chart [death’s] forms and media” in science, culture, literature, and art; and ultimately, to construct a “craft” that will convey us into death. According to a footnote, this last point can be interpreted to mean a set of practices, the rehabilitation of ritual sacrifice, the adoption of the personae of the dead, the distribution of a chemical called Thanadrine, or the construction of an actual ship.

Since penning this ad, McCarthy has given lectures in his capacity as INS general secretary in London, New York, and Berlin, the so-called “world capital of death.” (Berliners presumably thought this was a hoot.)  Critchley was appointed to the post of head philosopher in 2003, supposedly after a purge of the INS First Committee. When not working their day jobs (as a novelist and professor, respectively), the pair give interviews in the society’s name and whip up official-looking documents like their “Proclamation on Art and Democracy” (2003), “Joint Statement on Inauthenticity” (2007), and “Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future,’” soon to be published in the pages of the Believer. A recording or transcript of the Triple Canopy event will undoubtedly end up on their website as further proof that the society really, truly semi-exists.

CHARLES PETERSEN: It may have been the first time that McCarthy and Critchley’s project was addressed as though it had some reality to it. Alexander Provan, the editor of Triple Canopy, set the tone with his opening statement, or indictment:

I will argue that we find ourselves in a perilous situation: each of us has been turned into a medium of transmission, doomed to convey no other message than that quality of our being—a condition that is not only generally accepted but, having in certain circles achieved an aesthetic aspect, relished. For certain prevalent and profitable systems of exchange, such as art and finance, this situation is ideal. And yet it has also made us—especially those of us who consider ourselves to be producers and consumers of culture, and for whom ideas and trends are a common currency—vulnerable to the International Necronautical Society.

Whatever this meant, the idea that the INS might actually be dangerous was the theme Provan set for his fellow inquisitors, and if not all chose to harangue the accused in the same obscurely sinister manner, they all maintained the conceit that McCarthy and Critchley had somehow given offense. Joshua Cohen, author of the novel Witz, slammed his shoe on the table and insisted that the Necronauts’ recourse to thinkers of the past (“all of them dead for at least thirty years”) belied any claim to the avant-garde. Sarah Resnick, editor at large for Triple Canopy, inquired as to the sources of the organization’s funding: “Did you choose the art world, or did the art world choose you?”

These were obvious questions, readily dismissed. (Critchley: “We’re constructing an alternate tradition”; McCarthy: “I can’t imagine an environment outside of art where you could get $60,000 to do what we do.”) ($60,000?) Their effect on the Necronauts became apparent only as the evening wore on. The inquisitors made themselves look ridiculous, but they also forced McCarthy and Critchley to defend themselves, which they chose to do in surprisingly unevasive ways. Perhaps for the first time, the INS founders appeared to be more than pranksters. Without the faux seductive ironies of their own events, the philosophy of the INS revealed its true appeal. I felt vulnerable; McCarthy and Critchley appeared dangerous. I had expected a mere happening, but what we got were two old ironists who, faced with a kangaroo court, took on precisely the proselytizing role they were accused of practicing.

RYAN RUBY: To ask how to join the Society would be the wrong question. Not because there’s no such thing as the INS, but because, as the manifesto claims, we are all already Necronauts. In the words of the immortal Lenny Bruce, “We’re all gonna die!” If the INS is not to be dismissed outright as a prank, its ostensible purpose is nothing more than to go around spreading this good news.

It’s hardly news, of course. But the Necronauts deny any interest in originality: repetition, copying, reenactment, forging, and stealing are what they preach and practice. They have styled their society as a throwback to the early 20th century modernist movements and appear obsessed with the conspiratorial politics and machine aesthetic of that period. In addition to its general secretary and head philosopher, the INS claims to employ a chief of propaganda, chief cartographer, and several nameless agents, sleepers, and moles. Its manifesto speaks of “tapping into death’s frequencies,” which seem likely to refer nothing more advanced than Marconi’s radio. The result of all the Necronauts’ deliberate anachronisms is that their attempts to say something about art and mortality are usually lost in their theatrical posing.

CHARLES PETERSEN: What made their philosophy at first seem so attractive was the insistence on going beyond tragedy and comedy—compared with which our own lives always come up short—to an insistence on “inauthenticity” and tragicomedy, in which the value of the human is neither celebrated through its nobility in destruction nor reaffirmed through marriage and rebirth. Tragicomedy, as Critchley put it, asserts that “we’re human and that’s nothing to be proud of.” Theirs is a “hypermoral project” that “wrests ethics away from the idea of form”; in the face of death, it admits the impossibility of all our stories of condemnation and celebration, with their desperate attempts to create an “authentic” life. I was honestly drawn in by this conversation. Disappointingly, though, it became evident that Critchley and McCarthy don’t want to fight, subjugate, or (despite the echo of “necrophiliac”) fuck death. As Critchley put it, the Necronaut is “not capable of tragedy, not capable of death, but rather dying.” This ambition to in some sense become death was odd, given Critchley and McCarthy’s constant references to the two great Western tragicomedies, Hamlet and Waiting for Godot, in which death is faced not with resignation but with courage and laughter. Despite their suggestively pale appearances, Critchley and McCarthy never took on the bravely “antic dispositions” of Shakespeare and Beckett’s death-hounded characters; it was rather the inquisitors, ill-at-ease in their roles, who gave the impression that they were dying up there.

RYAN RUBY: Dying, for a Necronaut, may be an antiart, but it’s still important to go about it one way rather than another. Western thought from Plato to the present, as the Necronauts understand it, has been in thrall to a philosophy called Idealism, which privileges form over matter, the original over the copy, authenticity over inauthenticity, the transcendence of the human spirit over the immanence of the material body. Idealism puts the individual human subject in a Sisyphean struggle to extinguish brute, indifferent matter by transforming it into concepts, ideas, and forms; it purports to reward the subject for its inevitable failure with the experience of authentic being in the moment of death. Critchley and McCarthy don’t attempt to deconstruct these binaries or resolve them but aim, like Marx and Nietzsche before them, to stand Idealism on its head:

All art and literature is divided between these two temptations: either to extinguish matter and elevate it into form or let matter matter by making form as formless as possible. The INS delivers itself solidly into the second temptation: to let matter matter, to let form touch absence, ellipsis, and debris. (INS Joint Statement of Inauthenticity)

“Ellipsis”? Instead of Idealism, the INS advocates Necronautical Materialism, in which being human is nothing to be proud of and “our bodies are nothing more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably toward death.” At the hearing, Critchley and McCarthy cited William Carlos Williams’s maxim, “no poetry but in things”; for matter to matter, they said, the thing must be allowed “to speak for itself.”

Necronautical Materialism involves replacing the unique, individual subject with the “antihumanist dividual,” a being who experiences the world as one of division, splitting, and fragmentation. It involves replacing the tragedy in which the hero authentically shatters himself against a fated death (a la Heidegger) with a tragicomedy in which an antihero inauthentically dies over and over (a la Wile E. Coyote). Finally, it involves giving up the desire to transcend one’s own materiality through art and allowing oneself to simply become matter, that is, to successfully inhabit the space of death.

After you, Necronauts!

CHARLES PETERSEN: Thus the obvious complaint against McCarthy and Critchley, that their society, as Joshua Cohen claimed, is only a “regressive, dandyesque pose,” a “quite brazen smokescreen by which to disseminate other projects.” Every avant-garde has in effect served as a propaganda wing for its members; the Futurist Manifesto was as much a publicity stunt as a statement of doctrine. But if McCarthy and Critchley’s rejection of the “sentimental humanist ideology” of much contemporary fiction makes for excellent publicity, the doctrine they advance does not appear particularly radical: it is a kind of “antispiritualist materialism” identified with, among other works, the “Thing-Poems” of Rilke, where the writer disappears (or dies, as it were), and describes objects as if impersonally. It would be difficult to come up with an aesthetic more divergent from the hypertheatricalism of the Necronaut’s other ostensible models.

At one point McCarthy complained, “Enough with the slapstick, guys.” And when, toward the end of the evening, the Necronauts were asked why they were so deathly boring, Critchley replied, “I think we want to be boring.” It was the measure of the success of the evening that both inquisitors and accused did indeed come off as boring, though the INS, made to defend themselves, earnestly took up the side of what sounded more and more like the thing-in-itself,while it was the inquisitors who looked uncertain, even as they droned on with their denunciations. For an organization allegedly built around the idea of inauthenticity, the Necronauts never appeared to have any problem with the role they were playing; it was the inquisitors who looked inauthentic, and human.

RYAN RUBY:  Had the Necronauts presented themselves as more rigorous materialists, the questions that occupied the Triple Canopy hearing—humanism versus antihumanism, authenticity versus inauthenticity, tragedy versus comedy—could not have been asked; being immaterial, they could not have been posed. Being human, as they say, is nothing to be proud of, but this is only the judgment a human could make. Matter doesn’t matter to itself, only to us, and only by virtue of our ability to transform it into something it isn’t: a symbol, an idea, a use-value, a work of art.

Throughout the hearing, the toilet at 177 Livingston could be heard flushing. At last, I thought, the true sound of the thing speaking for itself.

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