The first manifesto came in 1999, declaring boldly, cryptically and with an indeterminate quantity of facetiousness that "death is a type of space which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit." The "we" was the International Necronautical Society (INS), of which the then-30-year-old and still unpublished British novelist Tom McCarthy was founder and self-declared general secretary. "We are all necronauts, always, already," the manifesto continued, winking with those concluding coupled adverbs at the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Other lines echoed Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot ("Let us deliver ourselves over utterly to death, not in desperation but rigorously, creatively"); but for all its Franco- and necrophiliac pomp, the fledgling INS undercut any risked pretentiousness with straight-faced prankish glee.
The art world lapped it up, opening galleries, museums and residencies to McCarthy’s INS, which for the next decade would waggishly skewer and exalt its avant-garde heritage with each new document and event. In 2003 McCarthy announced a purge of the group’s First Committee, expelling most of its founding members—two of them for "reasserting the certainties of middle-brow aesthetics" (they got book contracts) and another, the playwright Matt Parker, for the crime of "not being dead." Parker would be officially reinstated upon his death in 2009, two years after McCarthy and INS "chief philosopher" Simon Critchley (of the New School and, lately, the blog-ed page of the New York Times) issued a "Joint Statement on Inauthenticity," in a few opening breaths squeezing in references to Heidegger, Empedocles, Baudelaire, Joyce and Wile E. Coyote.
The declaration, read at an event that may or may not have transpired by men who may or may not have been McCarthy and Critchley, was at once a Derridean assault on all philosophical notions of being-as-presence and an attack on any pretense of authenticity in art. The necronaut officials cast their lot, as good Modernists have for the past fifteen decades, with art as artifice, imitation, play. "Art’s dirty secret is inauthenticity all the way down," they announced, ceremoniously opening a bag from which the cat had long ago fled. From Baudelaire to Warhol to Bowie to Prince and giddy, giddy Gaga, that secret’s all over the dial.
This would all be so much clever art world frippery if McCarthy were not also a formidable talent as a novelist. And literature—or at least its English-language market-prose variant; poetry’s not quite so daft—is the one contemporary popular art form that still falls for its own naturalist swindle. It’s the only dupe so credulous (or cynical) as to require occasional reminding that even, and especially, in the sparkling heights of realism, art is naught but theft and apery and con, and its transient truths are wrought from chains of falsities. To tear dark Saint Bataille gently out of context: "Literature is not innocent. It is guilty and should admit itself so." You don’t have to embrace Bataille’s goofball mysticism and fetishization of violence—or McCarthy’s tongue-half-in-cheek adaptation thereof—to join them both in asking literature to acknowledge itself as a far craftier and more adventurous playmate than even the most faithful of mirrors.
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In 2005 McCarthy published an odd, smart and viciously funny novel called Remainder with the small French art press Metronome. Despite the title’s nod to Derrida—as in, ahem, "the non-present remainder of a differential mark cut off from its putative ‘production’ or origin"—Remainder wore its theory lightly. For all McCarthy’s prêt-à-porter avant-gardism, the novel’s prose is straightforward, univocal and relatively unself-conscious, its plot linear and unadorned. This is not to say that Remainder is a simple book, but McCarthy took pains not to announce its mischievous intents too boldly. It wore pressed khakis in lieu of black leather.