Joseph Bisat MarshallThe Ineffable Narrative2014

The following text is the preface and introduction to my undergraduate dissertation completed during my time at Central Saint Martins. The piece was designed as a typewritten book and is descriptive of where I was in my thought processes and ability as a writer at the time; but I’m fond of it.

A man whose desire is to become something separate from himself, to be a Member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge... invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it. But with the dynamic forces of life, and those in whom those dynamic forces become incarnate, it is different. – Oscar Wilde (2013, p.129).


In the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, first published in 1891, Oscar Wilde (2008, p.3) suggests: ‘The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.’ Neither Realism nor Romanticism is a sufficient description of life. Wilde alludes to the ill-fitting nature of polarised descriptions suggesting that, like the character of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, we are eternally unhappy with being limited to either end of dichotomy.

This is, fundamentally, a piece of design writing (designed writing about design), but that means that it is also a piece of philosophy. The language of philosophy is that of refrains. It is the reshaping of thought again and again in an attempt at new understanding. At its best, it is humble in its aspirations of improved, and not complete, understanding. It is the same aspiration of science and of the arts and it is at the very core of design. We are not served well by considering these categories as disparate and unconnected. The artist Kurt Schwitters (1930, cited in Becker and Hollis, 2005, p.16) once wrote that:

Design consists not of the forces themselves, but of balancing them. In printed matter, the forces are the image, the lettering, typographic material, printed and unprinted areas, etc., in a state of related tension. Everything in the design is equally important.

I ask you to read this body of writing as you might experience a piece of design or music in the sense that each paragraph (element or phrase) does not function alone, but is instead part of a whole. Words are selected because they contribute significantly to a collective linguistic puzzle. (A critique of Abram Games could not be founded on his use of just one colour, nor one of Frédéric Chopin on his choice of a single note.) This is also a work of fiction, an autobiography, a ‘pretentious’ drop in a very dark ocean. It is the ‘balancing’ of all these things and it must be, for that is the nature of design.

We should be very careful with denotative titles: philosophy, science, art, design... like many words, they can be both useful as a means of organisation and dangerous in their effect on meaning. Does this writing, with language as its means of expression, situate me in the world of literature where I have become only a writer? No. I am a designer, not a designer toying with the tools of another profession. Titles are dangerous. They are counterproductive towards rich and positive progression. In discussing how design can and should be a combination of all things, my hope is that we then might struggle to define it at all; we will struggle to call it anything but life. The journalist Gerald Long (1988, cited in Zhuang, 2012, p.91) stated that:

Design is in many ways a meaningless word, since the idea it covers is too vast and for most people inaccessible. It is really reverse entropy, or rather the opposite of that of which entropy is the measure. I am afraid that, in the end, only philosophy and theology offer adequate terms to discuss the matter.

As ‘creatives’, if not for a better title, we often talk of an immersive practice; where life is entirely synonymous with design. These are the designers to which the term exceptional can be applied; ones who are capable of producing ideas that appear to have been plucked from nowhere, but in actuality draw from every infinite facet of their existence. There is no finishing work and heading home, no line to be drawn, no separation of things that might constitute work and things that might not. There is simply a life. For some people, lucky people, design is this imperative. I have to do this.

The designer is also ‘a life’; a complex threading together of all past, present and future experience; it is both singular and individual. In his last book, Pure Immanence: Essays on Life, written in the interval before his own death, Gilles Deleuze (2012, p.28) poses ‘a life’ as the answer to the question ‘what is immanence?’ He suggests that:

No one has described what a life is better than Charles Dickens (1989, p.443), if we take the indefinite article as an index of the transcendental. A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love, for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degree that he comes back to life, his saviors turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death.

Deleuze allows a consideration of ‘a life’ that is defined by more than outside experience; it pervades everything that it means to be a human, within no parameters, defined by neither object nor subject.

When the words ‘design’ and ‘life’ become interchangeable, the reality of categorisation becomes an impossibility. Design that means something to us is design that connects to us. Deleuze’s concept of immanence denounces categorisation, posing it as a means of separation and not connection. What we might typically describe as the individual, but what I will call our story, is central to the practice of design and it is to what this writing will constantly refer. This utilisation of narrative in design, one that is entirely concerned with the human condition, will allow us to function in the space around categories or titles. It will be discussed in this paper as the space between such false dichotomies as science or art, fact or fiction, design or life. They belie connection to our story through polarisation and transcendence. It will require an interrogation of understanding that a mode of thought deemed ‘philosophy’ is capable of doing, one that exposes the definition of narrative and its application to the practice of design in warm embrace of the ellipses... there is always more...


‘Once upon a time’ are words that have tumbled from many a storyteller’s mouth and pen. We would undoubtedly recognise what would follow as being a narrative in the most typical sense of the word…the formula prepares us for something that we should consider a pure form of fiction. This narrative is understood as sequential storytelling. It is the organisation of events into some sort of chronological order that communicates a sometimes simple and sometimes complex experience. Once implies a happening before this one: before now something happened. Upon a time implies an event that happened in time, but not now. Everything about it speaks of chronology, of organisation. Of course organisation is so fundamentally necessary to life, it cannot be disbanded as a means of communication. But an understanding of narrative that depends entirely on organisation is not descriptive enough when we use it to describe our story... it is problematic because an individual is made up of more than consciousness and order. Typical understanding of narrative lacks the capacity to overcome this; it lacks the capacity to tell our story. We require a consideration of narrative that is concerned with the chaotic, fragmentary reality of life, a more ineffable narrative.

This need to organise and to make sense of what is, in reality, a chaotic world, has existed as long as consciousness has; it is by no means a recent occurrence and nor is its recognition. The Greek poet Hesiod writes in his Theogony (trans. Hine, 2005, p.112):

First of all chaos came into existence, thereafter however / Broad-bosomed earth took form, the forever immovable seat of / All of the deathless gods who inhabit the heights of Olympus...

Greek mythology supposed the very first God to be named Chaos, a dark and silent oddity from which others – Gaea, Tartarus, Eros, Erebus and Nyx – were born. The division of a previously disordered world into nameable deities was an early example of the human attempt to make sense of life. Friedrich Nietzsche, in his The Birth of Tragedy, depicts Ancient Greek tragedy as a space where chaos and order were inextricably combined. For Nietzsche (1999, p.14), this duality is necessary to the creation of a ‘more vigorous offspring’ than either extreme can offer individually. Not only should Chaos be recognised, Nietzsche (1999, p.97) suggests that he should be embraced:

‘But how suddenly the wilderness of our tired culture, which we have just painted in such gloomy colours, can be transformed, when it is touched by Dionysiac magic! A storm seizes everything that is worn out, rotten, broken and withered, wraps it in a whirling cloud of red dust and carries it like an eagle into the sky.’

In attempting to make sense of the world, we tend to categorise elements of life by dichotomising situations that are rarely so black and white. As in Nietzsche’s philosophy, where progression is found in the combining of disparate forces, we must find the gaps between disciplines and bridge them in creative practice.

Our story, framed by Nietzsche’s duality of forces and Deleuze’s immanent life, is a perpetually singular existence, a continual and personal narrative that is in a constant state of flux, where each moment is a combination of all others, gone as soon as it arrives. This narrative is not concerned with chronology; it is concerned with just us: the human being and the life it lives. The individual operates between categories.

There are particular philosophers whose work will continue to be discussed in this paper. Nietzsche is excitingly relevant to this kind of thinking as per his entire body of work that constitutes years of dedication to the exposure and exploration of the human condition. He foresaw the dissolution of traditional religion and metaphysical philosophy, speaking of ‘the death of God’, and calling for a radical rethinking of human existence and knowledge. His work is in specific contrast to notions of ideals (and their religious undertones) that promote transcendence as an affirmation of identity and of life. Instead, he was concerned with the reality of unpredictable, chaotic imperfection. Deleuze is a Romanticist; his writing style is poetic to the point of illusion and is widely considered exclusive in its continual use of abstraction and neologisms. This is problematic in terms of its communicability, but there is a specific area of his work that is central to the discussion of our story. His extensive writing on immanence, meaning ‘entirely within’, is of great use when exploring design that is not simply alongside life, but within life.

The Ineffable Narrative, 160 x 230mm, 2014

The Ineffable Narrative, 160 x 230mm, 2014