What Specter Haunts the Sen­tence We’ve Cre­ated?


Nonfiction / Janice Lee

:: Narrative as Conceptual & Cognitive Process
What Specter Haunts the Sentence We’ve Created? [i] ::

In a dream I can see the horizon line behind the trees, orange-green in their autumn stupor, heart beating in the vaporized chill of the air, and an echo that says something along the lines of parting as narrative. This is all part of a larger struggle with the various definitions of narrative, its diverse connotations, and reactions in relation to my own perpetual and persistent writings. Here we struggle too with the recognition of the wall, the limitations of a project, the private conversations with ghosts, or even, the haunted versions of ourselves. Does one detect an almost adversarial stance against narrative, or at least, against particular definitions of narrative (because to this day, and for me at least, there doesn’t seem to be a definition we are completely satisfied with)? There are shifts, points of reference moving from philosophy and phenomenology to biology and neuroscience. And through these various lenses, we may or may not glimpse a more profound understanding.

What stands is that narrative, simultaneously a surmise full of longing and possibility and a condemned relic of intentionality, should be thought about from multiple perspectives, multiple minds, multiple suns with varying gravitational fields that coexist with at least the imagined transparency of ideas and gazes. We imagine the evanescent impressions of poetry comingling with the physiological blueprints of the brain’s inner workings.

Cognition does not “happen” or reside simply in the physical brain. Cognition is an ecology, and literature—including narrative—is only one of the environments that sustains this ecology. What of narrativization, and, as such, issues of translation and problems of time, both at the objective/scientific level and at the level of subjective human experience, individual as well as collective? However, let’s not prolong the crucifixion of the author, nor resurrect—yet again—the “reader.”

Derrida writes:

Who is it that is addressing you? Since it is not an author, a narrator, or a deus ex machina, it is an “I” that is both part of the spectacle and part of the audience. An “I” that, a bit like “you,” undergoes its own incessant violent re-inscription within the arithmetical machinery. An “I” that functioning as a pure passageway for operations of substitution is not some singular and irreplaceable existence, some subject or life. But only rather moves between life and death, between reality and fiction. An “I” that is a mere function or phantom. [ii]

Today, I’d like to place my faith in a third member of this trinity: the ephemeral, contingent and identity-less being that exists in the motion between the author’s hand(s) and the reader’s eye(s). A being, therefore, not purely psychological or immaterial; rather, a being fully possessed of a mappable physiology but graspable only with the communal intention and integration of many successions of ideas.

These are thoughts pieced together from a series of conversations with collaborators Joe Milazzo and Laura Vena, under the guise of Strophe. Perhaps just a sense of curiosity drove our efforts, or an attempt at shedding the skin of the previous century’s future. In a collaborative text, we wrote together:

Possible narratives are defined by an increased participation in the narrativization of a piece, as the innovative text will seek to atomize the subject, granting the reader some new notion of their own embedded subjectivity. [iii]

We distinguish here between narrative and narrativization. Narrative as organization, coherence; and narrativization as an inevitable cognitive consequence of textual interaction, or the cognitive process itself resulting in an interaction with/within narrative. (Our distinction too is inspired by David Antin’s definitions of narrative and story, especially in relation to the presence of “stakes” in narrative). [iv]

We further explain:

The atomization is for the purpose of refraction—like projecting a cone of light through a dense cloud of dust, only to learn how that light bounces around and reveals the dimensions of all the disparate bits of “nothing” that seem to make a whole; the reader has an increased awareness of the intentionality of the work, seeing narrative as possibility.

This is not such a radical reconceptualization of narrative, but a consideration of narrative and narrativization, like Badiou, in terms of epistemology rather than ontology, in terms of phenomenology rather than narratology. This reconsideration is also a reconsideration of narrative not solely as a literary concern, but as a phenomenological one, a neurological one, a cultural one, an evolutionary one, an emotional one, an empathetic one. I want to understand you. Let me understand.

Pierre-Jean Jouve:

Poetry, especially in its present endeavors, (can) only correspond to attentive thought that is enamored of something unknown, and essentially receptive to becoming. [v]

We create the way we live, and in a dream, someone tells me that parting is the way of narrative. Is narrative an exercise in freedom? In death? In empathy? What kind of a beginning does narrative offer, haunted by a ghost that cues the gestural fusion of idea with language, the ghost that speaks as a denotative and connotative apparition hiding in a text that is buried alive? [vi] What do our lives tell us about our dreams?

Narrativization has the potential of revealing the essential excess of human experience, this engagement possible as one’s own subjectivity navigates toward aporia: the impassable, untraversable, inarticulatable, indiscernible, contingent, and nontranscendent. The aporia is a philosophical puzzle or a seemingly insoluble impasse in an inquiry, often arising as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent premises, the state of being perplexed or at a loss.

But we need to want to go there, into that most difficult and rare radiation of simultaneous confusion, bewilderment, amazement, pain, suffering, life, death. I drive to the Salton Sea on a summer day, 115 degrees, the stench of putrefaction, too many dead fish floating at the surface, piled on the rocks, bones, abandonment, relief, sublimation, the burden of passion or a simple nuance of seeing. I feel alive through death.

The possibility of narrative is the potential to offer a literary enactment of the kind of consciousness that drives the dream of individual subjectivity. In other words, the reader must construct his or her own phenomenological self-model during the process of reading. It is indeed a question of phenomenology, of knowledge, of one’s place in the world, the creation of a narrative that does not ignore the inherent and necessary quality of narrativization for human understanding but rather pushes a narrative aesthetic that allows and inspires readers “to view their ideological embeddedness with fresh eyes.” In other words, the reader gains some notion about their position as a subject in the world, recognizing their own ideological embeddedness as narrative’s possibilities allow us to confront our own models of experience. It’s as if, in a narrative, one could actually gaze into the space between two mirrors and not have your own head block your view of infinity. Rilke echoes, “Suddenly one has the right eyes.” [vii]

Lately has been a period of measuring against loss: the loss of my mother, of time, of life. The way I interact with time and space and language—what experimental writing practice becomes, for me, is the manifestation of ghosts. I see ghosts everywhere, especially in the margins of altered texts. Ghosts scurry across the tracks of my mind, leaving footprints on the margins of well-traveled memories, but never creeping out into the open. What is regained through loss? What is lost through excess? How do we think in terms of language at all?

There is a neurological transcendence (as poet Will Alexander would say) at work when we interact with poetry—the ideas that voice themselves when the letters shed their physical traits. From a collaborative text with Will Alexander: 

Existence is only present between two divine markers, hands pounding out a shape from wet clay. We are born from nothing, die into nothing, or, this nothing that is undefinable, unarticulateable, these events that bookmark our physical existence and so in daily lives we humans find ourselves constantly reaching towards the divine, the other side, a different ground than that of the trampled pigs and rotting organs. Plant vibrations even attest to our sensitivity, to the constant rise and fall of tensions. Prayer is not a ritual or action but a hand reaching into the ether in an attempt to touch something. Someone is banging at the door and we don’t know to answer it. Someone is climbing in through the window and we don’t see it. In the distance, a bell starts to toll… [viii]

Narrative is reaching. Narrative is remembering, even through all the excess mud. Narrative is the attempt to move forward when there is no reason to go on.

Badiou speaks of the intervention which is the reader’s interaction with a text, the participation in a kind of “active reading” that opens up a phenomenological possibility, rather than closing in on a singular narrative. A story is most often a story about “something,” a something that rarely includes the plurality of subjectivity and consciousness themselves. Who was I before this text? Who am I today?

The “event” here refers to that which can not be discerned, the conceptual framework that exists outside of language, the point at which one’s mind is most open-minded, “a rupture in ontology, a being-in-itself—through which the subject finds her realization and reconciliation with ‘truth.’” [ix] Or, the shadow of narrative history, a textualized séance, and a “phantasmogenetic center”—that “point in space so modified by the presence of a spirit that it becomes perceptible to persons materially present near it.” The ghost lives in and is alive in writing, and the text is the site of its conjuration and activation. Who is haunting whom?

Perhaps this influence of the spirit of the text and the ghosts of the inexhaustible labyrinths of time even erases the “I” we hold on to so dearly. Could we go as far as Lichtenberg’s proposal that instead of “I think,” we should say “It thinks,” as we say “It thunders” or “There is lightning.” Or as Borges relates, “There is not, behind the face, a secret self governing our acts or receiving our impressions; we are only the series of those imaginary acts and those errant impressions.” [x] Perhaps this postulates a different sort of precision than the one we seem to be building. Too, though, as Schopenhauer declared, “The world is my representation,” and so I persist in the awful vastness of knowledge that is yet to be united.

We’re talking too of the “blind spots” in Derrida’s grammatology, those stress-points in the text where readers are forced to confront themselves and their relationship with the ideological project the text presents, those “blind spots” around which all else in the text revolves, the reader encountering a reinscribed truth through the narrative context of the text, a context that becomes part of the larger, stratified context of the “world” at large. Or also, as Paul de Man puts it: “[T]his is the point at which literariness, the use of language that foregrounds the rhetorical…intervenes as a decisive but unsettling element which, in a variety of modes and aspects, disrupts the inner balance of the model and consequently, its outward extension to the nonverbal world as well.” [xi]

I want to consider Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity—that there are moments in space and time where and when the physical world becomes a text to be read and interpreted, where and when the event is structured not by casual networks of matter but by symbolic references producing meaning. Jeffrey Kripal relates these processes of writing and reading to paranormal processes, coining the phrase “authors of the impossible.” [xii] And it is this reaching for impossibility that for me unites the “beyond” haunting metaphysics and a personal writing practice.

In a text, there is so much that is unspeakable, but also the words of so many voices echo in the “just beyond.” In the search for a concrete “I,” we slip, waver, stare at the moon, and make assumptions. A limited view locates ghosts in the past. But it is more precise to say that their roots lie in the future, in a reading not yet realized but being realized presently. This is the dream: that the gesture of tomorrow becomes animated by the intentions of now’s many, that the investigation of today’s world influences the words of an excessively omnipresent future. I articulate my love for you and with the words something becomes fixed, something is utterly lost, something is utterly regained. I both fear and work toward with all my being the ability to articulate, to express.

Narrative is the ghost speaking on the threshold of being. The materiality and literality of writing become the foundation for the revenants that haunt our texts. There are ghosts in writing everywhere, offering hope or glimpses of apocalyptic cognition. I will write something. One day I will die.

It is the cognitive estrangement that arises out of encounters with ghosts that brings about cognitive change, the paranormal as instigative, narrativization as understanding, understanding as the creation of meaning, the beginning of subjectivity.

          Friend, this is enough. Should you wish to read more,
          Go and yourself become the writing, yourself the essence.
                    —Angelus Silesius, Cherubinischer Wandersmann VI, 263 (1675)
                              [Translation quoted in Borges: “A New Refutation of Time” [xiii]



[i] Title of post on HTMLGIANT by Christopher Higgs (Feb. 23, 2012): http://htmlgiant.com/random/what-specter-haunts-the-sentence-weve-created/.

[ii] Derrida, Jacques. Cited in Appelbaum, David. Jacques Derrida’s Ghost: A Conjuration. New York: State University of New York Press, 2009.

[iii] As yet unpublished collaborative text by Janice Lee, Joe Milazzo and Laura Vena titled “On Possible Narratives, Narrative Possibility, and the Possibilities for Narrative.”

[iv] Antin, David. “David Antin, On Narrative: The Beggar and the King.” Pacific Coast Philology 30.2 (1995): 143-154. Rpt. in Poems and Poetics. http://poemsandpoetics.blogspot.com/2010/06/david-antin-on-narrative-beggar-and.html.

[v] Pierre-Jean Jouve. “La poésie est rare.” Cited in Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

[vi] Lee, Janice. “The Ghosts of I’ll Drown My Book.” Dear Navigator (Spring, 2011): http://blogs.saic.edu/dearnavigator/spring2011/janice-lee-the-ghosts-of-ill-drown-my-book/.

[vii] Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letter to Clara Rilke. 10 October, 1907. “Introduction.” The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Trans. Burton Pike. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2008.

[viii] Alexander, Will and Janice Lee. The Transparent At Witness. Solar Luxuriance, 2013.

[ix] Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. New York: Continuum, 2006.

[x] Borges, Jorge Luis. “A New Refutation of Time.” Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. Trans. Weinberger, et. al. New York: Penguin, 1999.

[xi] De Man, Paul. The Resistance to Theory. Theory and History of Literature, Volume 33. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

[xii] Kripal, Jeffrey. Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[xiii] Borges, Jorge Luis. “A New Refutation of Time.” Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. Trans. Weinberger, et. al. New York: Penguin, 1999.


From the writer

:: Account ::

One does not write for the pleasure of it. It is a miserable task, finding words to describe events, to express feelings. The brain and the heart have never been so incompatible. László Krasznahorkai writes about being “[c]ondemned to look, yet at the same time to be deprived of sight.”* This is the constant state of writing, the threshold between sanity and insanity, between knowing everything and knowing nothing, between absolute misery and hell and pure desire and love. Writing exists because language fails. Because language always fails, we write and we keep writing. My friend Joe Milazzo and I talk about failure in writing. The greatest works of literature are magnificent and brilliant failures. And those works considered “successful” today are dull, boring, agreeable. Joe tweets: “If it’s a success on its own terms, it’s a failure, albeit a magnificent one. If it’s a failure on its own terms, it’s a success, just not a very interesting one.”** Fine, I say. I accept the wager and fate of failure. My goal, then, will be to fail as absolutely and magnificently as I possibly can. This is the most I can hope for.

* Krasznahorkai, László. “About a Photographer.” Translated by George Szirtes. Music & Literature Issue 2. Spring 2013.

** Milazzo, Joe. @slowstudies.


Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), and Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), an obsessive response to the films of Béla Tarr. She currently lives in Los Angeles where she is Co-Editor of [out of nothing], Reviews Editor at HTMLGIANT, Editor of the new #RECURRENT Novel Series for Jaded Ibis Press, Co-Executive Editor at ENTROPY, and Founder/CEO of POTG Design. She currently teaches at CalArts and can be found online at http://janicel.com.