Shipping the Disaster Home

by Tom McCarthy

'Matter,' writes Georges Bataille in La Dépense, is 'the nonlogical difference that represents in relation to the economy of the universe what crime represents in relation to the economy of the law.' What better corroborator could Bataille's claim have than Roman Vasseur's common earth? This is matter in its most nonlogical, its most recidivist state: silent, dirty and recalcitrantly meaningless. A looped video shows Vasseur at the Borgo Pass—an ugly fissure in the Ur-European landscape, scene of catastrophic fires, famine and sieges—directing peasants as they shovel earth onto a truck. They look like not-quite archaeologists, not-quite surveyors, not-quite grave-robbers: illegal and undesignatable at the same time, just like the earth itself, which, through a set of décalages between shippers, border security and customs offices, managed to enter Europe 'proper' (the EU) both as contraband and without status. Meanings—legal, allegorical and aesthetic—have been chasing after it ever since, trying to plant themselves but never taking root in its resistant soil.

Not that sowing meaning into soil is new to Europe. Goethe and Wagner fertilised their earth with Teutonic symbolism; Rilke urged it to arise invisibly within us; Celan, who had seen his parents disappear into the earth-grave in the sky that German culture gifted them ('Dig this earth deeper!', the blue-eyed death-master of Todesfuge tells the Jews), spat it out as tortured words. Beuys connected it to telephones; Kiefer filled books and aeroplanes with it. The earth of Europe is rich to the point of toxicity with associations—and with terror. 'Why,' Stoker's Dracula tells Harker, 'there is hardly a foot of soil in all this region that has not been enriched by the blood of men.'

'Every attempt will be made,' writes Vasseur, 'to avoid direct reference to myths and fictions commonly associated with this region.' What a wonderful stroke of disingenuousness. In its inception, execution and documentation the earth project positively grafts itself onto Dracula, and vice versa. Stoker's epistemological-cum-confessional mode unfolds across the emails Vasseur sends to London and the bureaucratic statements they contain, just as the correspondence between Stoker's solicitors Billington and Carter-Patterson unfolds across the invoices for goods and details of delivery Vasseur meticulously keeps. The shifting ethnic tectonics of Stoker's Mitteleuropa, in which Saxons, Wallachs, Dacians, Magyars, Szekelys, Slovaks, Servians and Carpathians (Andrei Warhola, 'Drella' to his friends, the pale master of death, artifice and self-invention, hails from this last grouping) jostle for position, are replayed as Vasseur's box negotiates its way across a troubled modern zone whose contours are continually realigning - a fleeing migrant bound, like so many before it, for the new, free land, the country history has not yet contaminated: America.

But scratch all that and entertain for one moment this proposition: that the earth never left America, that it was always and already there. Or rather, that it left only to detour en route back to its place of origin. Who put Dracula in Transylvania? Hollywood did—with a little help from an English writer. And what is Transylvania, essentially—this ethnic melting pot, this place of auto-transformation, real estate contracts and death? It is America, or at least a mirror in which America, vampire-like, can look at itself without seeing itself reflected back as itself. Transylvania serves as an index of America's paranoid fear that the very processes that nurture it might be corrosive: fear of immigration, fear of sex, of tainted blood (a fear shared by East Coast socialites and West Coast homosexuals alike), fear of the very land itself: Baudrillard may have told us that the most real thing about America is Hollywood, but the superior minds of Burroughs and de Tocqueville knew that even before Hollywood was soil, and it was evil. Maybe Bush is right: the US is, like Stoker's Bistritz, under siege from evil, enemies without and enemies concealed within. Vasseur's earth, then, bearing down on New York, banking over the harbour as it aims straight for Manhattan, is evil coming home to roost: death in a box, a vehicle, like Stoker's Demeter (which, shunning the designated port, rams Whitby itself), driven by a man who knows he is going to die, who is effectively already dead.

The earth's final destination is Los Angeles. LA is the real Borgo pass: a torrid, smoggy place built on a crack, a faultline, what Mike Davis calls 'an abstraction of dirt and desert signs'. The great architect of its sustainability (undeadness), William Mulholland, is a kind of inverse Dracula: where the engineer brought water to the desert, the Count insulates himself against the multitudinous, free-flowing seas (the waters on which, as Yeats had it, 'common things' are pitched about) by laying earth across the water. Hatred of the masses: isn't all LA a kind of feudal Draculaville? Davis describes its 'fortress' architecture, its division into 'places of terror' and 'fortified cells' from which banked rows of cameras stare out—creating, he might have added, zones of vampire-like invisibility around their occupants. Then again, LA could be read as a mirror of Vasseur's earth, the screen through which it finally reveals itself: a delicate ecosystem (as Davis tells us) full of embedded information in the form of disastrous environmental history, earth in which networked associations are residual in 'a hugely complicated system of feedback loops'. Residents of LA's middle class neighbourhoods are constantly trying to have their own patch of earth designated in the most valuable way, like so many self-serving critics hoping to advance their stock by staking a fashionable patch of Vasseur's project—or like the people who bought shares in it, hoping that its future value as art would return them profit. LA has drawn so many oil prospectors that its surface has more holes drilled into it than anywhere else on earth: so many peep-holes in a coffin's lid, openings through which the black matter beneath the surface breathes and inarticulately gurgles.

This endless speculation, in all senses of the word. That is what Pynchon sees in the Watts Towers: an attempt to generate some profitable meaning out of rubble. Rubble is, of course, the flip side of all architectural projects, just as ruin is the spectre haunting speculation. LA may be a boom town, but it is also a place of abject poverty, of bankruptcy, of riot, fire and flood. If the seismologists are to be believed, though, all LA's legion previous disasters are as nothing compared to the enormous, catastrophic earthquake that is now long overdue. When it comes, warns Davis, loss of life will be incalculably huge; damage costs will run into the trillions. Speculative value, like the city's vampire fortresses, will crash back to earth when the earth really moves. The stray dogs beneath the freeway know this: if the traffic stopped you would hear them howling like the wolves of Borgo. You would also, if you listened, hear the bums and schizos, like a thousand unleashed incarnations of Stoker's lunatic Renfield, muttering as they push their trolleys: 'It is coming—coming—coming!'

Tom McCarthy is a novelist and writer living and working in London. McCarthy is also instigator and General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS). For further information see:

Originally Published in Version 0.4 Magazine 2002.

Editors: Gabriela Vanga,Mircea Cantor and Ciprian Muresan.