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Ecstasy of inauthenticity

Tom McCarthy

Toke My Asymptote – or, The Ecstatic Agony of Appearance

Published: 04.12.2019



In his epochal work The Coming Community, Giorgio Agamben seduces, or perhaps assaults, the reader with salvo after salvo of provocations that are both counterintuitive and (partly for that very reason) devastatingly persuasive. For me one of these in particular might stand out. It appears near the beginning, in Section Four, ‘Ethics’, he writes, ‘begins only when … the authentic and the proper have no other content than the inauthentic and the improper.’ The statement helps sketch a fundamental line or vector of a blueprint for a new way of thinking community in relation to language and desire; for a new way of thinking politics and democracy in relation to outside- or in between-ness; of thinking bodies in relation to their spectacular mediation; and of course, of thinking the self, or subject – the ‘proper’ of the passage I’ve just quoted – in relation to all of the above. But what’s most striking about the statement – here’s where counterintuition comes in – is the way it lays out its concepts: rather than being set apart from the authentic on the far side of some kind of notional grid, as its opposite (although it is precisely that) the inauthentic is looped back into the former, placed at its very core; ditto the improper, which is reintroduced as nothing other than the proper’s ‘content’. And, what’s more, this looping back, this oxymoronic return of the expelled, is said to entail the basis and the possibility of ethics.

The question of authenticity and I go back some way; we’re old sparring partners – frenemies. It’s been a fraught relationship, shot through with paradox and misconstruing. My first novel, Remainder, does turn around its protagonist’s obsession with becoming ‘real’, inhabiting his era or his city, building, skin, movements and gestures in a ‘first-hand’ or ‘authentic’ way, an obsession which he carries to the point of murder. Yet the pleasure of seeing this book receiving glowing press reviews that praised it for its ‘originality’ and ‘true’-ness was tinged with an awareness of something being odd or ‘off’, since Remainder is in fact the most un-original of novels, a novel about non-originality and simulacra that’s quite blatantly composed of set tropes and constructed situations reprised and, only slightly modified, replayed from sources ranging from Ballard’s Crash and Beckett’s Godot back to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (Uncle Toby’s domestic re-stagings of battle terrains) and Marvell’s...

  • psychoanalysis
  • Jacques Lacan
  • identity
  • contemporary literature

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Tom McCarthy

Tom McCarthy

is a British novelist and artist based in London. McCarthy operates as »General Secretary« of a semi-fictitious organisation called the »International Necronautical Society« (INS). He also published a number of essays and short stories. With his debut novel Remainder (8 ½ Millionen) he was awarded the Believer Book Award in 2008. His novels C (2010) und Satin Island (2015) were shortlisted for the Men's Booker Prize.

Other texts by Tom McCarthy for DIAPHANES