Tate Britain The International Necronautical Society, founded in 1999 by Tom McCarthy (General Secretary), is dedicated to mapping ‘the spaces that open around the sign of death in the fields of literature, art, science and culture’. The Necronaut denies the transcendent, the Platonic notion that observable reality is subordinate to a higher reality of Form, preferring the doctrine of ‘brute material facticity’. The Necronaut’s universe ‘“resembles nothing” and gets squashed everywhere, like a spider or earthworm’. It is Bataille’s ‘Formless’ universe. But in a formless universe we still have matter. And to the Necronaut matter matters most. Where Christianity somatises perfect form as God, Necronauts ‘celebrate the imperfection of matter and somatise that imperfection on a daily basis’.
The Declaration on Inauthenticity, part of Nicolas Bourriaud’s prologue to Tate Triennial Altermodern, announced a new phase in the INS’s thinking. It was fun. It went well. When I spoke to the General Secretary afterwards, however, he was bothered by one thing: the woman from the Times Literary Supplement had just told him she felt like she’d been had.
The problem was this: the Declaration did not issue from the mouths of McCarthy and Simon Critchley, the INS’s Chief Philosopher. The two men actually introduced by Bourriaud were professional actors (Critchley was in New York; McCarthy was watching from the projection suite of the Clore Auditorium). You could tell something was up as the actors took the stage: no goofing around with mikes and bottled water, no bashful attempts to establish a rapport with the audience, none of the bumbling preamble of your typical liberal address. For this was not a liberal address. These men did not enter sheepishly into their agenda. They enacted it with fanatical elocution.
And yet, despite the obvious archness of the whole thing, the explicit trappings of a scripted spectacle, some felt they’d been had. What did they expect of a declaration on inauthenticity? Did they really think the fauxtotalitarian dramaturgy (consolidated by the brief appearance of Anthony Auerbach, the INS’s Chief of Propaganda) would give way to a coherent symposial exchange? Even as the penny dropped, even as we realised that the use of actors as doctrinal mouthpieces precluded all possibility of dialogue, of comeback, even as the Necronautical envoys gave their pre-prepared answers to the spiralling, pleonastic questions that eventually came from the floor, there remained a faction who held out for justification. But the Declaration was not a justification. The Declaration was a declaration. Done as an artwork. And artworks tend not to justify, even when they take pedagogical form.
The Declaration began with the contention that ‘art is the consequence of failed transcendence’, and ‘produces icons of that failure’. An icon is always a copy of another icon; ergo, art is the repetition of failure, an apt vehicle for navigating an imperfect world. So it’s not Shackleton’s ‘imperial dream’ that should matter, but his ‘blackened, frost-bitten toes… [that] he and his crew were forced to chop from their feet, cook on their stove and eat’. What matters is what’s left after the failure: the remainder.
How do Necronauts navigate the imperfect world? Answer: inauthentically. ‘The modern dream of authenticity… is to believe that one can form oneself as a unified, autarkic, autonomous subject’: an individual. The Necronaut, by contrast, is a ‘dividual’, one who acknowledges that ‘the self has no core, but is an experience of division’. This division is cause for comic celebration rather than ‘Tragic affirmation’, enabling the Necronaut to be both ‘the one who trips and the one who watches the trip… what Baudelaire calls dédoublement ’. Moreover, ‘once you’re split and reproduced [like Tom McCarthy in the projection suite watching ‘Tom McCarthy’ on the stage] you’re not unique any more: you’re fake’. So inauthenticity is the comic acknowledgement of a diffuse self.
But what about the others? Those who, having realised ‘the self has no core’, come down on the side of tragic affirmation? The ones whose hands shot up when questions were invited, and who insisted on returning fire when the scripted answers they received were at provocative variance with the logic of their enquiries? The ones who managed to keep a straight face through the whole thing, even when the Necronaut, pausing to consult his lines, began, ‘If I can answer your question this way…’
There’s no place for the humourless in Necronautical philosophy. But is it not possible, technically, to be humourlessly inauthentic? And another thing: the Declaration never quite manages to say why, having shot down the clay pigeon of transcendence, authenticity should be the next target. Perhaps authenticity is the human consolation we grant ourselves when mourning the death of transcendence (ie, when God’s gone, the soul shrinks into a mere self). Perhaps authenticity is the displacement of ‘truth’ from the transcendent realm to the concrete realm. Perhaps authenticity is transcendence lite.
Sean Ashton is a writer based in London
All quotations, INS Press Briefing: Declaration on Inauthenticit y