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Encyclopaedia of Narrative Environments

The work begun in this encyclopaedia is continued at:

MA Narrative Environments Compendium

"Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a taling and that’s the he and the she of it."

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake. London, Faber & Faber, 1975, p.213.


  As Simon Goldhill (2012) points out, any encyclopaedia may be thought to have imperialistic tendencies. He continues by observing that it is not by chance that the great encyclopaedias, such as Pliny, Diderot and d'Alembert's "Encyclopedie" and the "Encyclopaedia Britannica", are the products of great ages of exploration and empire. Indeed, Blanchot (1997: 53) suggests, "does not the Encyclopedia not still belong more or less to the eighteenth century, dating it thus from the moment of its greatest success." 

Encyclopaedias, as their name indicates, seek to encircle and encapsulate the world of learning, as all that is known, and thereby to
 define and confine the world through the categories and classifications of knowledge, by seeming to state all that has been learned and, by implication and extension, all that can be learned.

By the same token, he suggests, there is nothing so out of date as an out of date encyclopaedia, when the world, the world of knowledge and the practices of learning, have moved on. Encyclopaedias then become guides to a forgotten or failed imperial ambition, an ambition to state (render static and complete) and to subsume the whole of the world. They, therefore, need to engage in careful, self-aware positioning, Goldhill advises. 

But what of positionality itself?

In the "Preface" to "The Order of Things", Michel Foucault discusses both the laughter to which it gave rise and the unease provoked in him by reading a passage in Jorge Luis Borges' "The analytical language of John Wilkins", about 
a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled 'Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge', in which "animals are divided into (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies." This engagement with an unfamiliar system of classification serves both to discomfort and to liberate. 

That engagement with the categories of the encyclopaedia, Karen Emmerich (2013) suggests, brings forth a recognition of the arbitrary nature of any manner of ordering information and structuring knowledge as well as the ideological force of such systems of classification. Furthermore, Emmerich contends, the heterotopias, i.e. places of otherness and other orders, that Foucault finds in Borges’ writing are capable of resisting the ideological force of conventional systems of classification, responding with a force of their own. Such heterotopias can destroy as well as create. 

Here we have reached the boundary of the creative/destructive dualism, a certain kind of positioning, and the limits of analytical language, to which, in some form, Derrida’s deconstruction responds (Parsons, 2013). Such ‘deconstruction', Mitchell Stephens (1994) notes, "guards against the belief -- a belief that has led to much violence -- that the world is simple and can be known with certainty. It confronts us with the limits of what it is possible for human thought to accomplish.”

Narrative environments engage with the complexity, lack of certainty and complementarity (Barad, 2007) of the world and the recognition of the limits of human reasoning, both as a constraining and as a liberating factor, through a practical engagement with the world.

What still might justify such a notion as an 'encyclopaedia' of narrative environments, beyond its 18th-century apotheosis, is discussed by Maurice Blanchot (1997: 55). He argues that this justification concerns, 

"The necessity of knowing everything, not individually but collectively, as a result of the greatly multiplied relations of men and human groupings, as a result also of the very firm consciousness of the interdependence of all forms of knowledge ..."

Thus, he continues, what might still justify the encyclopaedia is, 

"the image of the living human community collecting itself in an almost organic way around itself, around the community, the learned, knowing, and ignorant community that is also for itself." (Blanchot, 1997: 55)

Nevertheless, we should not take this mention of 'community' as being simply realised or realisable. Blanchot (1988: 1) further reflects on the relation between the communist exigency and "the possibility or impossibility of community at a time when even the ability to understand community seems to have been lost ...".

This encyclopaedia, then, while focusing on the topoi of narrative (discursive topic) and environment (topological place), and all the combinations of conceptual and material practices to which they give rise, engages critically with the spatio-temporal horizons of the imperialism, however confused, unrecognised and misrecognised, allied with the project of neo-liberal globalisation or monde-ialisation, in an endeavour to engage with the possibility or impossibility of the common, the communal and the communist, the last term being the source of so much misunderstanding. 

This encyclopaedia is, as noted on the page 
Porphyrian Tree, Labyrinth and Rhizome: Epistemology and Ontology, an encyclopaedia modelled on the notion of the labyrinth in the form of a net or network (Eco, 1984). Such an encylopaedia, following Eco's discussion, does not deny the existence of structured knowledge, but is cognisant that such knowledge cannot be recognised and organised as a single global system.

When the dynamics of globalisation/monde-ialisation, or imperial world-making, are resolved, this encyclopaedia's time, and space, its world, will have passed.


Barad, K., (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, Durham: Duke University Press.

Blanchot, M. (1997). The Time of encyclopedias. In Friendship. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 50-56.

Borges, J.L., (1993). The analytical language of John Wilkins. In Other inquisitions 1937-1952. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Eco, U. (1984). Dictionary vs. encyclopedia, in Semiotics and the philosophy of language. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Emmerich, K. (2013). The ordering of things: visual syntax in the poetry of Eleni Vakalo. Word and Image, 29 (4), pp.385-408.

Foucault, M. (1994). The Order of things: an archaeology of the human sciences, New York, NY: Vintage Books. 

Goldhill, S. (2012)  Εγκυκλοσ ομηροσ.  The Classical Review, 62 (2), pp. 340-343 

Parsons, A. (2013). Ill-fitting notes on deconstruction. Poiesis and Prolepsis, 6 October 2013. Avaliable at http://prolepsis-ap.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/ill-fitting-notes-on.html

Stephens, M. (1994). Jacques Derrida. New York Times Magazine, (23 January). Available at: https://www.nyu.edu/classes/stephens/Jacques Derrida - NYT - page.htm.




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an autonomous, situationist-inspired,low-budget, irregularly published journal

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Allan Parsons,
May 7, 2010, 1:31 AM