Notes Toward (Es)saying "I", Narratively
Rob Halpern

I was already being prepared for [the world's] tournaments by a training
which taught me to have a horror of faulty grammar instead of teaching me,
when I committed these faults, not to envy others who avoided them.

             –Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

Once upon a time is always here. Crisis, my origin: this fault. Someone is called where I am compelled to explain. To make narrative critically: this response to crisis. Otherwise it's narrative by default simply because there is no other way actively to be here.


From the Sanskrit root gna, or know, our word narrative derives bound to practice. In Latin, the root meaning appears to have doubled, manifesting an otherwise latent critical difference. There is at once (g)narus: knowing, expert, skillful; and narro: to relate or tell. (1) A fault—mine, and ours—runs thru the space between. Fault: deficiency, lack, scarcity; as well as slip, error, mistake. Also, more critically: fault as dislocation or a break in continuity of the strata or vein. Here, knowing is held in suspense and knowledge is always potential. The process of telling/relating needn't connive with already determined knowledge; narrative might, for example, radically deviate, turning away from, or perverting, the very practice of authorization, questioning rather than securing the position of the one who tells. Here, between the overdetermined and the indeterminate, narrative determines, that is, it constrains and enables, just as it struggles and responds, testing the tension between knowing and composing. Here, we make our narratives ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. (2)

I. Poetically

At once wayless and wayward, I positions a self here at the site of narrative beginnings: place of mutability, place of many turns. The crossroads of legend where every way is lost and every way is open. Site of impossible possibility and paradox, where extremes coincide. At once here: where aversion keeps one in place—I: this paralyzed fixture—disinclined to turn another way; and here: away from which every turn is perversion, an aberrant way away from the proper. Here is forever shifting, the site of all potential, site of suspense: where aporia (knowing no way, having no word, possessing no resource) and euporia (knowing so many ways, having everything to say, possessing it all in abundance) converge. Here is where I intervenes in its own story, the permeable interface of averse states—for example: impoverishment and abundance—as if with two faces averse, and conjoined. In the space between states I spreads, this narrative surface: at once this promise of disruption, this promise of continuity.

Crisis is the point at which old orders no longer cohere and here looms suddenly bereft of foundation. Here, for example, is where Socrates steers his interlocutor: toward aporia-place of lost ways. But what if this crisis could be experienced euporically, as a moment of possibility precisely here where a way appears impossible. Here occasions the paradoxical coincidence of antithetical terms. Not the paralyzing absence of a way but the accessibility of always other ways. Not naively, not as if everything and anything were possible, but realistically, as if the site of narrative were the only place where the impossible might open onto possibility.

Here: wayless, I is exposed; and here, wayward, I resists. It seems so familiar: experiencing the simultaneity of political possibility and impossibility. The fullness of the imagination paradoxically constrained and enabled by a politically invested environment which threatens to render that fullness innocuous if not impotent. How to breathe this air that animates such cynicism, how to live in this element that triumphantly promotes irony as the "task of the day". Somewhere between the pessimistic and the utopian, where these extremes coincide, where pessimism reveals its utopian bent: here, one might ask how to think the moment when "nothing is possible" becomes "only the impossible is possible". And here another realism takes the world for its measure and referent: here, where the limits of history, the bleak horizon that pens us in, meet the pressures of the imagination.

Discrete identities and sovereign subjects—like the kings and saints of history—are what they are by virtue of narrative strength. But I am more interested in narrative frailty, narrative faults: proxies and prostheses, artificial extensions, these interventions in the world. Rather than narratives saturated with ends known in advance of every beginning, I am interested in narratives that destabilize the coherence of the I which, like a promissory note or stand-in for some future fulfillment, suffers this contractual obligation to self-identify over time. The self-same I, untroubled by difference, might fill the space between disruption and continuity, but it cannot fulfil it. The self-same I: at once the coherent effect of narrative and the grammatical position to which one recursively returns to ensure that coherence and whereby narrative possibility is filtered or censored to preserve an ideal of intelligibility. Coherence, here, is but the accomplishment of an optimal performance, a labored production of social and linguistic grammars the faults of which are seamlessly concealed so as no appearance of any wound or hurt outwardly might be at once perceived. But there are other possible effects, other ways, veering toward away or versing waywardly. What if, for example, we were able to avow I's fictitiousness without and affirm our necessary, if only provisional, belief in it. Here, rather than persuading, narrative might perform its agnostic potential: the promise of possible impossibilities that holds sway in the ambiguous space between. This refusal of certainty, this averse turn away from knowledge, this perverse turn toward knowing: this is not a declaration of incoherence. Between impoverishment and abundance (where impoverishment becomes itself a figure for abundance) the I traverses narrative orders—disrupting and maintaining—while it is simultaneously traversed by them.

I goes between: a love story. In Plato's Symposium, Diotima locates Love in the space between ignorance and wisdom. Offspring of Poros (way, resource, expedient) and Penia (wayless, poverty, lack.) Love paradoxically embodies this antinomy and cannot give a reason for itself. According to Diotima, Love judges without being able to give proper reasons. "It is judging things correctly without being able to give a reason," says Diotima, "surely, you see that this is not the same as knowledge, for how can knowledge be devoid of reason?" Jacques Lacan derives from this—in however faulty a way—one of his characteristic figures for love: giving that which one does not have to give. I am thinking of narrative like Love: wayless and wayward, determined to do precisely what it cannot do. Its reasons are but ruses. Between aporia and euporia Love is risked agnostically, like a narrative that risks its own foundation. Sentenced and committed, here, I goes between, exposed to every possibility of rejection and loss, abjection and shame.

Augustine and Stein: Someone is called where I is compelled to explain. "Well well is he. Explain my doubts, well well is he explain my doubts.": this is how Gertrude Stein begins "Regularly Regularly In Narrative" in How to Write. But the work narrative is called upon to perform ("Explain my doubts") is alien to the work narrative will ultimately do. Explain my doubts: at once the intended imperative and the impossible end. My doubts will never be properly explained, my uncertainty never properly reasoned away. Explanation fills the space between ignorance and knowledge, but it cannot fulfil it. Recalling another essay of Stein's, explanation is composition while composition itself is figured as this "beginning again and again and again explaining composition and time.” And taking the perverse turn toward the threshold of early modernity, there is Saint Augustine determined to found the authority necessary to begin a book whose very goal it is to authorize its subject. He, too, is concerned with beginning, explanation and time about which he writes in the Confessions: "If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone who asks me, I don't know." Between faith and doubt, past and future, knowing and not-knowing, between 'he' (the partial referent to which past experience is attached; it interferes with and informs writing's present) and 'you' (a total referent—my audience, my God, the other I love—to which "something more" that escapes representation is attached and toward which narrative tends) between all these faulty binarisms Augustine navigates a way to forge an 'I': the vehicle and the effect of an other faith. Explain my doubts: the self-imposed imperative to narrate, to compose a self. A crisis in knowing runs thru composing just as narrative traces the fault along which I becomes to articulate or align itself with the world in ways. In the long afternoon shadows thrown by the likes of Augustine and Stein, I am drawn to this, the faultiness of narrative, its promise.

To I this plot

Grant me Lord to know and understand whether a man is first to pray to
you for help or to praise you, and whether he must know you before he
can call you to his aid. If he does not know you, how can he pray to
you? For he may call for some other help, mistaking it for yours.

           –Saint Augustine

The problem of beginning, the order of calling and knowing, is a perennial preoccupation of both narrative and history. In our postmodern era in which history has illusorily evanesced, narrative promises at once to rescue the I from an indifferent individualism and to turn the present away from indifference. Augustine's double bind is here: in order to gain knowledge and understanding, one must call or praise; but without knowledge and understanding one cannot know who or what it is one calls. Mistaken audience is tantamount to mistaken identity. Who is listening. Who is out there. Here, along the fault that runs between audience and identity, narrative and history continue to produce each other. Here, an I is "emplotted.” Here, Augustine's address, his "how am I able to speak to you?.” the fragility of its beginning, awakens him to the danger of being dispossessed of precisely that to which his I professes to cling: communicative possibility. But who is the subject of that possibility if the I who depends on past experience for recognition is displaced, transfigured by the new experience of narrating a conversion: the advent of an other I? I is this essay, this attempt, this fragment, this experiment—like composition is explanation—this reach transversing the pronominal distance between "Explain my doubts, well, well is he explain my doubts" and "how am I to speak to you?.” In reaching out, I, discomfitted, doubles over the hinge of this plot and risks a world. Between belief and doubt, this communication without guarantees: the very condition of narrative possibility.

A crisis of audience

How shall I call upon my God for aid, when the call I make is for my
Lord and my God to come into myself?... Does this then mean, O Lord my
God, that there is in me something fit to contain you? Can even heaven
and earth, which you made and in which you made me, contain you? Or
since nothing that exists could exist without you, does this mean that
whatever exists does, in this sense, contain you? If this is so, since
I too exist, why do I ask you to come into me? For I should not be
there at all unless, in this way, you were already present within me...
But if I exist in you, how can I call upon you to come to me? And where
would you come from? For you, my God, have said that you fill heaven
and earth, but I cannot go beyond heaven and earth so that you may leave
them to come to me.

           –Saint Augustine

So then beside as any one can come to be certain of then if it is as it
is that is an audience is what it is what is it if an audience is this,
pretty soon then can feel again that an audience is this, and then
introspection can go on but the habit of this thing makes it cease to be
this, because the audience and is it this keeps going on...That is to
say can does any one separate themselves from the land so they can see
it and if they see it are they the audience of it or to it. If you see
anything are you its audience and if you tell anything are you its
audience, and is there any audience for it but the audience that sees or
hears it...And all this has so much to do with writing a narrative of
anything that I can almost cry about it.

            –Gertrude Stein

Bewildered by the question of containment, uncertain exactly which way to turn, Augustine's move in relation to his audience is paradoxical. Turning toward what "there is in me" he intimates, indeed creates, the depth of a private self. Simultaneously he turns toward "heaven and earth" revealing the self's dependence on exteriority. But is there an essential difference between the two dimensions? Must one aversion—one turn away—achieve priority over and above the another turn? Or might a mutable perversion—a turning aside from truth or right, a diversion to improper use, a recognition of necessary distortion, error, fault—intervene thus making coextensive interior and exterior? Privative and excessive, I becomes this permeable surface, this interface of in and out: this narrative tension between self and other. Paradoxically, for Augustine, only a turn away from the destabilizing question of audience, in other words, only silence or not-writing, can ensure his possession of a self untroubled by spatial location; only a turn away from either way will ensure comfort and allow him to remain confident in the knowledge of such a self without knowing it at all. Self-knowledge as stasis annuls self-knowing as narrative process. The very fact of Augustine's writing is testament to his recognition that aversion can offer no way; it cannot ensure a truthful I, only a proper self, that is, a property which must risk itself in the act of narrating a story of origins, a return to the fault. As soon as one begins to narrate oneself, one is adrift, exposed to the hazard of contingency and doubt, relatively unmoored but bound to the world nevertheless. In the face of political danger, I mobilizes narratively: hazard becomes promise as I perverts a way away from established norms. Looking back I still obeys, only paradoxically. Here crisis troubles the ground on which Augustine is authorized to speak as "himself.” Every word of address threatens to expose the subject to the vertigo that looms when the secure ground of "self-knowledge" gives way to groundlessness. And here it is precisely the move to explain my doubts, to provide for them a foundation, that makes foundation impossible. Truthful I's are improper selves, selves held in suspense, in potential and in situ in the space between. In the Confessions, this abyss, as it opens onto narrative possibility, becomes paradoxically the very ground of love and faith.

Intentional fallacies

They who write narrative and history do not do what they say they will
do when they start out to do what they are about to do.

            –Gertrude Stein

What the storyteller narrates must necessarily be hidden from the actor
himself, at least as long as he is in the act or caught in its
consequences, because to him the meaningfulness of his act is not in the
story that follows.

            –Hannah Arendt

Around every one of I's articulations, a story begins to congeal, a plot thickens. Once upon a time, I stands in for this memory of the present, a lapidary effect of all the stories I've ever told. Here is where I unbecomes along this fault in the world, this cleavage or interruption that opens onto narrative in the discomfiting space between where I never fits. Here is where I encounters oblivion and possibility simultaneously on the threshold of another sentence, another scene, another world. "It was at the threshold of a world such as this that I stood in peril as a boy" [Augustine]. But it is not, as in Augustine, "my past foulness and carnal corruption of my soul" that defines the narrative fault; rather the I itself—the risk and the promise.

"Something more"

Do heaven and earth, then, contain the whole of you, since you fill them? Or, when once you have filled them, is some part of you left over because they are too small to hold you? If this is so, when you have filled heaven and earth, does that part of you which remains flow over into some other place?


That part of you which remains cannot be represented, cannot be assimilated to any way. You—audience, condition and limit of my self—an unrepresentable horizon coincidently inside and out of me. "For without you, what am I to myself but the leader of my own destruction?" [Augustine]. Or, as Sandra Bernhardt titles her film: Without You I'm Nothing. Her self composed thru an appeal to the other. Turning toward 'you.' toward the invitation to explain, I becomes, thru narration, in relation to. Relation alone saves one from destruction while paradoxically establishing the bond between 'you' and 'I' which erotically threatens I's preservation as a discrete and coherent self. Narrative's prosthetic origin: this other, who both is and is not I. You may be I's determining "last instance"—an absolute referent modulated thru innumerable social circumstances that determines 'I' in the final analysis. You, an Archimedean point doubled and reflecting two horizons, in and out, creating this field of apparent depth in the space between. You is equidistant from and coincident with I's every utterance. In relation to you, I's meanings are measured. Thus is I realistic without being real. Risking nothing short of love, the voice aims at "a particular absolute... it aims beyond particular objects to that 'something more' that exceeds them." (3) That part of you that always remains.

II. Politically

Narrative as counter-statement. What is the difference between being called to state (called to call a thing by its proper name) and being called to the state (called to recognize one's place within the established order of things)? I ask this with the belief that narrative has everything to offer the effort that would resist these imperatives, enabling responses to always other calls. Called to state and called to the state: names, like bodies, are assimilated to established narrative orders. But narrative needn't accede to the status of statement, or doxa: rather, it is narrative as counter-statement, as paradox, that enables one to refuse stately calls.

Edward II, a digression. The story of the English king Edward the Second. In the sixteenth century, Holinshed, the popular chronicler or historical narrator to whom both Marlowe and Shakespeare turned for material, tells us that King Edward "began to hold the nobles in no regard, to set nothing by their instructions, and to take small heed unto the good government of the commonwealth, so that within a while, he gave himself to wantonness, passing time in voluptuous pleasure, and riotess excess: and to help them forward that kind of life, the foresaid Peers who (as it may be thought, he had sworne to make the king to forget himself, and the state to which he was called [my italics]) furnished the court with jesters, ruffians, flattering parasites, musicians and other vile and naughtie ribalds, that the king might spend both days and nights in jesting, playing, blanketing and in such other filthy and dishonourable excercises." [Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1587]. "The foresaid Peers" is none other than Gaveston, the king's minion to whom Christopher Marlowe has the Edward of his drama implore, "Knowest thou not who I am? Thy friend, thy self, another Gaveston." To forget oneself and to forget the state to which one is called are virtually synonymous offenses that render Edward a 'bad subject' rather than a good sovereign. They are capital crimes serious enough to land Edward in the tower, where he is sodomized to death with a red hot iron spit. As Holinshed reports, the method was chosen "so as no appearance of any wound or hurt outwardlie might be at once perceived." Death appears woundlessly so that Edward can appear in state. Were this wound to surface it would assume the figural status of a counter-statement. Here, between life and death, continuity and discontinuity; here, around this sign of struggle, a different narrative would take shape paradoxically, this intervention in the orders of state. Thus would the wound's articulation make it all "connectedly different.”

Narrative difference

When you consider the very long history of how everyone ever acts or has
felt, it is interesting that nothing inside them in all of them makes it
connectedly different.

            –Gertrude Stein, "Composition as Explanation"

From Augustine to Stein, narration has provided the way for re-articulating the world in the space between, a space inassimilable to already established orders, a space where discontinuity and continuity together define a fault "outwardly.” But what about politics? What about poetry? And what about the division of intellectual labor that traditionally separates the two? Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire is often cited in this regard: "The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future." But what if the inquiry into the relation between narrative and "social revolution" were to focus on neither past nor future but rather on this space between? Right now, I am reading Stein's Narration beside Louis Althusser's essay on "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses". "The tenacious obviousness of the point of view of production alone, or even that of mere productive practice are so integrated into our everyday 'consciousness' that it is extremely hard, not to say almost impossible, to raise oneself to the point of view of reproduction." [Althusser]. In Stein's text, the question appears as follows: "Can anyone separate themselves from the land so they can see it?" And, as if in response to both questions, she writes "I am so certain so more than certain that it ought to be done. I know so well all the causes why it cannot be done and yet if it cannot be done cannot it be done it would be so very much more interesting than anything if it could be done even if it cannot be done." What is to be done is precisely what cannot be done. Nevertheless, the imperative is sustained: to recognize the unrecognizable, to do the undoable. Here, the narrative imperative, like a Luddite wrench in the machinery of state, would prevent the apparatus from reproducing itself. "To make a thing a thing that they recognize while they are writing make it something that had no existing before that writing gave it that recognition, they tried to do this by changing something" [Stein]. This must be done. The point of view of reproduction is the point of view of an antinomy defined by the apparent impossibility of doing mutually exclusive things, like continuing and discontinuing, localizing and sublimating. "Revolution" is a narrative not at all unlike the narrative of conversion and it too is defined by paradox according to which continuity with past experience must be maintained in order to compose a discontinuous way here. Stein might be discoursing on ideology and Althusser, at great pains to demonstrate how Marx succeeded precisely "by changing something.” might be writing about narration. And while it is dangerous to reduce politics to literary theory—and this is not at all my intent—it is critical to ask whether any such success at making it "connectedly different" is conceivable without narrative? To make it all otherwise: a deceptively simple imperative. To find one's way maplessly—aporically and euporically—along the fault. To essay the unthinkable, to attempt to do it all by other means: that is to practice narrative "as a socially symbolic act.” Fredric Jameson articulates this as a dialectical imperative: "To reckon one's own position as an observer into the critical thinking in [then] no longer has to posit an end to history in order for historical thought to take place." [Marxism and Form].

Ideology is a narrative practice. Narrative situates us historically in the world. Once upon a time opens onto this critical scene of telling and distributes an historical here equally thru the space of narration. The scene is primal in the sense that it is domestic; it frames a world within the world while promising a way to encounter the frame. Narrative is also the vehicle of ideology: it represents (in Althusser's formulation) one's imagined relations to real conditions of existence; it is charged with the demands of history, the production and reproduction of a world. And while narrative can also intervene in the space between, narrators cannot separate themselves from the land in order to see it. In other words, there is no outside in relation to ideology, just as there is no outside of narrative. To deny narrative, to resist its claim upon us, is not so much resisting ideology as it is ideologically blind to the fact that without narrative we are bereft of the means of counter-strategy in the face of dominant and oppressive ideological orders. This is telling, this is our common practice whereby the limits and truths of the world are negotiated. In the making of history, every composition is the site of as many decompositions. Rather than the solution to crisis, narrative is the performance of it (this fault to which I return and from which I emerge again and again); not a repetition of prefigured limitation, but a renegotiation, an approach, a reaching out that defines the world. Here, 'I' appears as a provisional place-holder at the site where a subject is called and assumed. The 'call' is a critical trope in Althusser's theory of ideology where 'interpellation' is said to hail the subject into social being. Accordingly, the ahistorical individual is called to assume the historical position of a socially intelligible 'I'. But I like also to think that, appearing as a third term between the determined and the indeterminate, 'I' is equally the effect of misrecognitions, incommensurable both with the name by which it is called and the name I call myself. Mistaken audience, mistaken identity. 'I' holds the promise of some non-identical content: 'you' my audience and 'he' my self. Narrative denaturalizes whatever 'I' and naturalizes only the need to narrate. The space of narrative, then, is one of intervention, conversion, transfiguration: where one renders oneself other than oneself in a paradoxical quest for a more truthful 'I'. Selves are called and recalled in turn. Augustine's ethic of conversion and Edward II's ethic of friendship both articulate ways of potential resistance to a prior call by way of a new response. Ethics are ideological, but they allow one to narrate one's imagined relations to real conditions differently, that is, to imagine it differently.

Critical faith

Only, how are they to call upon the lord until they have learned to believe in him?

            –Saint Augustine

But how do we come to believe in the I that is called? Stein writes of "...names being not existing because anybody can know what any body else is talking about without any name being mentioning, without any belief in the any name being existing." Without risking belief, communication lies in state. And belief, situated on the other side of doubt and uncertainty, must be born in the space between, the space of the call itself. This recalls Althusser recalling Pascal writing (more or less) that one gets down on one's knees and belief follows. But with a critical difference: belief needn't refer to the uncritical reproduction of a dominant call and response; it might rather refer to one abandoning oneself to a space between incommensurable calls. Perhaps this would be the space of neither belief nor doubt but of a more critical faith whose subject, whose 'I', is attentive to the paradox: for what (or who) is the subject of abandon if one's self is the object? While belief is necessarily ideological, ideology isn't unequivocally "bad": in fact, it is necessary. Like narrative, ideology enables. Here again, the crisis, the plot: narrative's origin, this doubling along the fault which I essays. Augustine abandons himself to narrative and in doing so the stakes of communication are raised without offering the security of a predictable outcome. If coherent selfhood is only an effect of narration, and if narration is always a potentially destabilizing force, then security is always already preempted when one risks a beginning. This is both the promise of narrative and its betrayal. And this is what makes Augustine's Confessions an exquisite act of love, as political as it is poetic. "If poetry is the calling upon a name until that name comes to be anything if one goes on calling on that name more and more calling upon that name as poetry does then poetry does make that calling upon a name a narrative it is a narrative of calling upon that name." [Stein] The poetic tradition, however, itself ideologically informed, has connived with the market of names—authorizing it in ways—a devaluing trade in which names are used and exchanged calculably as guaranteed referents, their faults concealed. So as no appearance of any wound or hurt might outwardly be at once perceived. Thus has the very need to call been obviated and the space between, from which another way may be reached, occluded. I believe, however, that in relation to crisis, it is the response-ability of narrative to restore our awareness of the need, and intensify our desire for another way.

And only by way of narrative might we unriddle "this knot of imaginary servitude that love must always undo again.” (4)

Note: Many thanks are due to Earl Jackson Jr.'s generous reading of this piece and all the accompanying conversation.


1. Hayden White notes this etymology in The Content of the Form.

2. Frederich Engels writes in his letter to Joseph Block, September 21, 1890: "We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place under very definite assumptions and conditions." Glossing this line in Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams writes, "What this restores, as against the alternative development, is the idea of direct agency: 'we make our history ourselves.' The 'definite' or 'objective' assumptions and conditions are then the qualifying terms of this agency: in fact 'determination' as 'the setting of limits'".

3. Copjec, Joan, Read My Desire, p. 148.

4. Lacan, "The Mirror Stage."


Althusser, Louis, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. London: New left Books, 1971.

Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Augustine, Confessions. translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, London: Penguin Books, 1961.

Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine. translated by John K. Ryan. New York: Doubleday, 1960.

Copjec, Joan, Read My Desire. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1995.

James, Fredric, Marxism and Form. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1971.

Stein, Gertrude, Narration. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1935.

White, Hayden, The Content of the Form. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Williams, Raymond, Marxism and Literature, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Issue One
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