A collaboration between the Critical Poetics Research Group and Nottingham Contemporary, featuring international guest speakers, the Five Bodies series of critical-creative workshops provided a new platform for debate, collaboration and innovation, exploring the relationship between creative and critical theory and practice.
In this piece, writer and creative critical PhD student at UCL, Devin Tupper, reflects on how a workshop ‘On Verticality’ by J. R. Carpenter has influence his perceptions of ‘authorial vertigo’.
Word[s], sentence[s], paragraph[s], text[s], setting[s], image[s], character[s], plot[s],
The writer soars on the idea. Limitless, directionless – the idea allows for possibility and potential. Words, sentences, paragraphs, text – these things ground the writer. This is the surface. This is the horizontal presentation of a craft which has strived to look beyond the surface. There, intertext, subtext, voice, can be encountered. They are the things in the ground – the earth, the minerals – that enrich a writer’s landscape. They allow for the words and sentences and paragraphs to grow and entrench their roots.
What can be found, then, when one goes deeper? To move below the earth, below the sea and sea bed – what will be uncovered?
In J.R. Carpenter’s workshop, On Verticality, I felt the pull of these questions. Though they were not the same questions that drove me to return to prose writing, they were of a similar vein. As a trained screenwriter, I knew that words were meant for images, and though we had to be economic with our texts, depth was something that was normally reserved for the directors and actors to pull from the words. Prose, on the other hand, does not have the luxury of performance (though I’m sure a counter-argument could be made). So, when I wished to return to the craft of prose writing, it was with renewed purpose – to give my texts depth beyond the images that I could produce.
When I first started to think about writing prose – it was based on instinct. A means by which I would attempt to embody the character, and give their ‘impression[s] produced by a landscape, a street, or house…that it must depict only what the intelligence concerned would have noticed, and always in terms within the register of that intelligence’. This was me thinking on a horizontal plane – describing what it was just in front of the character. To this end, my work felt static, lifeless, rootless. What I never took into consideration was the role that I, as author, could take in the selection and organisation of the text.
This only occurred to me when I began to view myself as an author separate from the work, while still having a presence in it – a spectral ‘double consciousness’ that existed both in and outside of the text. This hauntological approach opened new possibilities to my writing, to my thinking, not just from a creative angle but from a critical one as well. I felt a sense of vertigo just looking down into the depths of literature and language sprawling below me. From that point on, I strove to plunge deeper.
This feeling has informed my research pursuits since, looking at the role of the author as an untethered entity, and how that can affect creative and critical works through practice. It was through this process that I aimed to represent Jacques Derrida’s spectre – an authorial presence in my work – as a means ‘to be, assuming that it is a matter of Being in the “to be or not to be”’. The spectre, then, ‘being neither absent nor present, neither dead nor alive’, thus not bound by temporality or spatiality, would allow me to transcend not just the horizontal plane of creative writing but of critical writing as well. Though this was what I wanted to accomplish as part of my Master’s degree, and now part of my PhD, I still did not have the specific language to really describe this process. That was, until J.R. Carpenter’s workshop.
To assign Derrida’s spectre with verticality does not just reinforce its rejection of space, but also ratifies its ability to move across histories and ideas. Much like Derrida’s deconstructionism, and desire to ‘shatter’ the structuralists’ ‘faith in reason’ by ‘revealing the uncanny irrationality of texts and their ability to confute or subvert every system or position they are thought to manifest’, Carpenter, I felt, was encouraging us to do the same – to engage with the vertical to uncover and subvert, to look below the surface and see what lies underneath. To consider what history may be lingering under the everyday, like the bodies of slaves who remain underneath the Atlantic as travellers fly overhead from one continent to another. The same path I followed when I decided to move back to the U.K. to pursue the aforementioned questions of depth.
To me, the role of the author is to uncover history, and then, as Henry James put it, to give its impression. It is a process that calls for a means to look beyond the surface, into the depths, at the history and secrets that lie there. For when humanity wishes to remember something, they build a monument, but when they wish to forget, they bury it. This uncovering is a process that has driven my work for some time, and up until J.R.’s workshop, I did not have the language for it. Now, however, I know it and can name it – verticality.
- Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction (New York: Touchstone, 1997), p. 63
- Eric Savoy, ‘Jamesian Hauntology: On the Poetics of Condensation’, in The Henry James Review, 38 (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2017), pp. 238-44
- Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 10
- Colin Davis, ‘Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms’, French Studies, 59 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 373
- Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 220
- Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction’, Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers, ed. Leon Edel and Mark Wilson (New York: Library of America, 1984), pp. 45-64