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.