Stages, Plots, and Traumas

Published in the Futures and Fictions collection (Repeater Books).

Our hero stretches taut the last strand of scarlet twine, pushes the pin home, and steps back to take it all in: the sprawl of facts, the network of inferences, evidence, mugshots, locations, everything almost tied up, but in waiting for a synoptic overview to coalesce, affording the pivotal insight that will reconfigure this data into a coherent whole, and close the case. The frustration, the pressure, and the dogged working of cognition are palpable.

In this scene, familiar from countless televised police procedurals and thrillers, it’s as if the closed chamber of the detective’s office serves as a proxy for the internal operations of his mind: a kind of camera obscura within which the network of relations between things, people, and places is refracted, projected onto a surface where it promises to finally come into sharp focus.

The operation does not feature in any policing manual or private detective’s handbook; there has probably been no instance of any professional dedicating working hours to a crafting pastime of such dubious value. This fictional in camera exists only on camera: it is a diagram of a diagram of thought in action. The function of the yarnwork is to provide us with a static two-dimensional image of thought, itself embedded within visual narratives which themselves are moving images of the construction of knowledge.1

If proof were needed of the popularity and power of the trope, we need only note that the term itself (more Etsy than homicide division) is drawn from a fond parody. In the high-school farce 21 Jump Street (dir. Phil Lloyd, 2012), presentation of the ‘yarnwork’ sets the scene for a revealing joke. For the failure of communication between two enthusiastic yet incompetent amateur sleuths played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum and a disgruntled police captain played by Ice Cube harbours a rather profound truth about the relation between knowledge, art, and the (dis)orientation of the subject in search of truth:

Schmidt: Okay, so we stayed up all night making this. It’s awesome, you’re really gonna like it. All yarnwork was done by Jenko.
Captain Dickson: Who put this together? Are you autistic?
Schmidt: It is artistic, sir, because the thing is, the yarn actually indicates….

Indeed there is an art involved in the construction of the yarnwork, in the sense that there is no self-evident or conventional procedure for stringing together the elements of a case—like the cognitive process it diagrams, the yarnwork is a matter of invention, construction, and perhaps individual talent; usually the result of one individual’s more or less competent, distressed, sometimes desperate attempt to gather, connect, and map information. In itself the yarnwork asks the methodological question: How to proceed? And in so far as it figures this predicament, there is also something potentially autistic about the yarnwork, too: rather than accurately diagramming reality, the yarnworker is always in danger of projecting onto the blank wall his own preoccupations, vendettas, personality flaws, and, when things get really murky, sheer delirium. There is always the looming possibility of apophenia, of creating patterns where there are none—a charge with which the detective will inevitably be confronted, when time is short and tempers are high, whether by an impatient superior or by the pen-pushers down at City Hall.

What does the trope of the yarnwork give us to think as far as the construction of knowledge is concerned? Firstly, in general, plot-driven genre fictions boast this peculiar feature: they are epistemological dramas, dramatisations of the process of obtaining and configuring knowledge. The international thriller, the police procedural, and the detective story present fictional inquiries couched within a framework where empirical data are assumed to be causally linked in a way that is subject to rational deduction. As Guy Lardreau observes, ‘in so far as such narratives present a search for the truth, how can they not envelop a theory of knowledge?’ They therefore hold a particular interest for the philosopher in so far as they ask many questions familiar to him or her: ‘What is a clue, a sign, a proof? What is the status of evidence? What marks allow us to recognise the truth? […] the questions that govern the detective novel are those that we philosophers have always posed’ (Lardreau 1977: 16–17).

Such fictional scenarios present us with a localised object or event (the clue) that stands out from the ground of normality (the everyday crime scene), suggesting forces as yet unaccounted for (unknown accomplices, missing links); at the same time they imply an arsenal of reliable procedures (evidence-gathering, elimination, deduction) and perhaps scientific techniques capable of making objects speak (forensics)—methods capable of uncovering those unknown forces. As mentioned in many studies of detective fiction, it is a form that emerged, and could only emerge, in the modern scientific world, since it reflects the predominance of empirical evidence and rational deductive methods (see Boltanski 2014).

Indeed, the classic predicament of the detective outlined above is similar to that which, according to Jean-Réné Vernes, lies at the origin of the very possibility of scientific knowledge (see Vernes 2000). For Vernes, what is called ‘Hume’s problem’ (the fact that reason alone does not allow us to validly posit the existence of laws of nature, or to account for the regularities of empirical experience) constitutes a break in the history of philosophy whose consequences the discipline has yet to fully work through. Since, after Hume’s intervention, reason could no longer provide a grounding for the assumption of the existence of independent matter and natural laws, philosophy came loose from its mooring to the scientific spirit, and resigned itself to the examination of perception and the habitual structuring of phenomena within the mind. In response to this disaster, Vernes insists that our perceptions themselves force upon us the hypothesis of a causally–determined ‘external world’. In his example, the concept of matter emerges when perceptually identical objects prove to have unaccountably different properties: if we have two coins that look and feel exactly the same, yet turn out to be of different weights, or if an apparently symmetrical die turns up a six on every throw, the probabilistic assumption that ‘all things are equal’ is upset, and one is then compelled to cut open the coin or die in order to ascertain the reason for this departure from equilibrium. According to Vernes, the very meaning of ‘matter’ lies in the enigma of the loaded die, in the disparity between apparent behaviour and an a priori model of the ‘ideal’ die—the probabilistic assumption that ‘what is equally thinkable [viz. that the die will fall on any one of its faces] is equally possible’. This assumption, which becomes evident through its apparent infraction in privileged situations such as that of the loaded die, is identical with the hypothesis of matter, since it posits that any apparent anomaly must stem from our incomplete knowledge of an ulterior, causally consistent reality. This hypothesis ‘imposes itself upon thought’, and it alone can save philosophy from its post-Humean free-fall.

Readers of Quentin Meillassoux’s work will easily comprehend how it proceeds from a confrontation with Vernes (see Meillassoux 2008)—indeed, Meillassoux has credited Vernes’s earlier work (Vernes 1982) with waking him from his dogmatic slumbers and inspiring his thinking on contingency (see Meillassoux 2008). Meillassoux precisely refuses Vernes’s attempt to reestablish scientific rationality on the basis of this probabilistic assumption, which he also sees tacitly inscribed in Kant’s argument on the transcendental necessity of the lawfulness of nature. Instead he chooses to accept the consequences of the reasonlessness of natural phenomena: nothing is necessarily as it is, even the laws of nature. Therefore we can have no sure knowledge of phenomena; the only certain knowledge we can possibly have is that deduced rationally from this very principle of ‘absolute contingency’.

It would be an interesting exercise to extend Meillassoux’s inquiry into the possibility of a coherent ‘extro-science fiction’ (one in which the laws of nature are themselves contingent and subject to change at any moment) (see Meillassoux 2015) to the hypothesis of an ‘extro-scientific detective fiction’. Surely the sleuth’s powers of deduction and evidence-gathering would be rendered utterly ineffectual in a universe (whether religious and magical, or ‘hyperchaotic’ like Meillassoux’s) where victims could disappear, or be struck down by god, or where ‘clues’ could simply materialise from nowhere, for no reason? For in the background of these fictions is a conception of knowledge founded on a stable causal framework, and their basic narrative device responds more to Vernes’s approach: the empirical presence of a salient feature that acts like a sort of mental grit, a cognitive irritant, impelling the protagonist to cut through the surface of things, to dig deeper, to slice open the die and find out why all things are not as equal as they ought to be, why the equation doesn’t quite add up. We could therefore say that the narrative motor of these fictions is fuelled by scientific epistemology; and that, philosophically, what they demand of us is to elaborate, not a strictly rational, but a problematic and procedural epistemology, one where knowledge is constructed in the attempt to restore equilibrium by cutting deeper and deeper into a situation in order to discover the unknown elements that continually throw it off-balance.

The figure of the yarnwork is precisely a visual representation of this problematic cognitive state, one where the pieces, when connected systematically, still refuse to ‘add up’, where the die still seems to be loaded. And this brings us to the second intriguing feature of the yarnwork: in its onscreen versions, this form of fiction poses the interesting problem of how to render the cognitive reconfiguration of information visible, and visually compelling as image—a problem to which the yarnwork is a reliable and now classic response. Indeed, the yarnwork figures a most crucial moment in the plot: the moment when everything is almost in place, a moment of the highest tension for protagonist and viewer alike. As a kind of provisional summation, a pause in the narrative, the yarnwork moment invites us to join with the protagonist in experiencing this threshold moment, and in readying himself to make the final push toward resolution.

The yarnwork binds together local empirical data in order to make it visible to the concentrated gaze, so that it might reveal what it owes to, and what it might contain of, some wider scheme of things, some more profound, hidden cause. But let us make a further observation about the way in which this information is pursued: rather than cutting into a problematic object such as the loaded die, in this kind of fiction the action of ‘cutting’ moves outward, cleaving from the local to the global. As the typical situation would have it, arriving on the crime scene, what at first appears as a routine investigation will throw up some anomalous element, inspection of which will provide ingress into a broader intrigue. The ramifications of this anomaly will continue to unfold, with the episodic return of the sentiment that something doesn’t add up, and perhaps ultimately leading us to the yarnwork moment—both the cumulation of these episodes and the anticipation of all the missing pieces finally falling into place.

There is also a narrative of the encrypted expression of power in play here: the local configurations are only corrupted and partial expressions of some ulterior plot, and the actors of the original crime scene may be mere puppets of a more nefarious crime. In this respect, the nature of these fictions can be clarified by comparing their narrative schema to a model drawn from elsewhere—namely, the quest for self-knowledge pursued in the therapeutic process.

In his early model of hysteria, Freud employs a metaphor for trauma that combines geology, cryptography, and a theory of psychic defence (Freud 1895): At the core is trauma—the Thing that drives you but which, at the moment of consulting the analyst, you can neither access nor afford to touch. Around the core there are strata, hardened layers that are at once an expression of the trauma—like cooled lava—and an encryption of it, since it cannot be read clearly in these secondary residues. Their opaque, perplexing folds both block the way to the truth of the analysand’s symptom, and serve as protection against the trauma (like the crust of the earth, upon which the heat of the core can still be felt, and even keeps you warm, but cannot harm you). Yet (as both the geologist and the analyst must assume) these strata contain clues. Symptoms, indeed, are behaviours which, because they are apparently causally unconnected to their immediate context, seem to allude to some unknown factor. During the process of therapy, as the patient attempts to move through these layers to reach the core—i.e. to understand themselves and their trauma—on attaining each subsequent layer they are obliged to assemble a self-narrative using the materials at their disposal, which are always partial and incomplete; and it is the incompleteness of these narratives—something is always missing or not quite right—that continues to drive the meta-narrative of the therapeutic situation. Freud writes of:

the linkage made by a logical thread which reaches as far as the nucleus and tends to take an irregular and twisting path, different in every case. This arrangement has a dynamic character […] the course of the logical chain would have to be indicated by a broken line which would pass along the most roundabout paths from the surface to the deepest layers and back, and yet would in general advance from the periphery to the central nucleus (Freud 1895: 289).

It is in following this winding thread that one hopes to reach the truth, which will reconfigure both what is known and the knower. This does not happen in a single revelatory moment, but over the course of a tortuous journey during which, episodically, the available data will resolve themselves into new patterns, each time providing a more comprehensive picture of the real source of the power that has a hold over the analysand.

In the process of psychoanalysis (also, let us recall, inspired by the will to forge a ‘scientific’ model of the psyche) as in the political thriller or detective drama, only at the end does one discover the power-source, that Thing that was driving the whole complex, the kingpin, the ultimate villain of the piece. In this sense, the original crime scene, that local, circumscribed and apparently trivial everyday scene which contains some worrying anomaly that doesn’t quite fit, is akin to the scene of the symptom, which, whether debilitating or merely peculiar, seems to have no reason, and therefore, within a ‘scientific’ framework, must testify to the influence of some ulterior power—and thus compels continuation of the work.

The question, of course—one to which each fictional detective, and each brand of therapy, provides a different answer—is how to find the thread from one to the other, or how to target the anomaly correctly and make the correct cuts in order to inspect it, further opening up one’s perspective from the local to the global scene. And this is, above all, a question of epistemology, one might almost say the question of epistemology, and of the yarnwork too: that of how the subject of knowledge can confidently pass from the gathering of piecemeal bits of information and observation of their asymmetries, to a configuration in which they are rendered coherent from a global point of view.

In this sense, apparent departures within the crime genre are in reality only variations on a theme: CSI, for instance, gives us a diagram of contemporary modes of knowledge, but remains concerned with this connection between local and global. In CSI one proceeds from the crime scene inward to discover an ultra-local anomaly that will, in turn, allow one to ascend back to a reconstruction of the crime scene, and thereby to its place within a more global context (the chemical composition of soil particles recovered from the crime scene matches with the land around the corporate headquarters where the victim worked until he was fired for insubordination for calling attention to suspicious financial transactions…). In forensic drama the implicit scientific framework of the narrative form is literalized, and it is the microscopic object that provides the symptom, the grit in the otherwise smoothly-functioning machine, that will be forensically inspected to reveal the broader scene.


The concept of ‘plot’ provides a framework within which we can clarify such an epistemology and its attendant drama; and it is precisely the centrality of plot to these kinds of narratives—easy to denounce from a ‘literary’ perspective as its weakness or debility, as in the faintly derogatory term ‘plot-driven fiction’—that explains their peculiar interest as epistemological dramas, or dramatisations of epistemology. Beyond the conservative gesture of countering the supposed poverty of this ‘minor’ and all too ‘generic’ form by the appeal to majority, perhaps through the hackneyed reference to Oedipus Rex as the ‘first detective story’, we can flip this literary denunciation of the supposedly downmarket craft of plotting by taking our lead from an historical account of the notion of plot that concerns not literature but theatre—which then will bring us back to the question of how the construction of knowledge is staged and narrated in visual forms of storytelling.

It is immediately obvious that ‘plot’ is a semantically rich word. Perhaps uppermost for us is plot in the sense of narrative, but not far behind it would come the conspiratorial sense of the word—the manipulation of affairs by some shady agent or agents behind the scenes. Also current, if less prominent, we find the senses of ‘plot’ as territorial (a plot of land), graphic (plotting a graph), and geometrical or projective (plotting one space into another). All of these, as we shall see, are etymologically interlinked in a rather satisfying way, all the more so because this is not a case of returning to a single eytmological origin but also (as is in fact common in etymology) one of accidents, convergences, and semantic superpositions.


In his work on the history of design, Benedict Singleton has identified a set of perennial suspicions relating to the practice and the very notion of ‘design’ and its related terms, all of which have connotations of complicity, connivance, deviousness or intrigue: craftiness, having designs on something or someone…and plotting (see Singleton 2008). Singleton links these misgivings to a well-founded fear concerning the primary act of design: In delimiting a plot—that is to say, in this context, carving out a chunk of material for use to a certain deliberate end—given that the material is never entirely neutral or lacking in its own history and energies, one also invites into one’s project forces from the outside; thus design is a constant negotiation with preexisting plots, an attempt to steer and mobilise them in the service of one’s own design for the materials at hand.

Design has been seen as suspect, then, according to Singleton, because it deals not with not the orderly marshalling of a passive matter—the hylomorphic schema whereby form is impressed upon matter—but with materials whose own proclivities and powers cannot be suppressed, but are to be harnessed and set to work for other purposes. Design is denigrated because the designer does not use her own prowess to tame matter, but colludes with nonhuman forces; which also means that the designer herself is subject to these ulterior plots that pre-existed her intentions and interventions. Design marks an acknowledgement of the designer’s own complicity in plots that may exceed her instrumental goals—for using already-existing energies to cunningly achieve your own ends suggests that other agencies may possibly have designs on you, and that, in selecting a plot to work on, you are merely further complicating twisted plots that existed long before you.

The history of the word ‘plot’ itself furnishes some evidence for this nexus of suspicion, intrigue, and spatial material practice. In The English Renaissance Stage Henry Turner argues that the modern concept of plot emerged between the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries in the context of the dramatic arts, with the advent of a new kind of theatre, and in the attempts of its proponents to define their nascent profession (see Turner 2006).

This involved the physical and cultural construction of a new type of theatre, a spatially enclosed building specifically marked out for dramatic use, and with a platform stage (the word platform here already hinting at a connection with plot). This is the movement from an open-air theatre with journeymen actors and a porosity between players and audience (mystery plays) to an enclosed performance space to which an audience pays for entry, to watch the unfolding of plays whose action often spans more than one setting.

What arose at this moment, as Turner explains, was the need for playwrights to conceptualise for themselves, and to explain to their audiences, the mechanisms of this new theatrical situation and its peculiar powers. The extraordinary nature of the theatre and the platform stage, as a space that ‘can manipulate space, time, and the conventional properties of bodies’ (Turner 2006: 32) was a crucial problem for the playwrights of the time not only intellectually but also commercially: to bring in an audience, they needed to justify the artificial construction within which they were to present their narratives. In plays of the period, therefore, we find lengthy defences or apologies which attempt to justify the theatre as spatial device, and to enlist the audience’s imaginative powers to make it function.

In constructing these apologies, playwrights turned not to neo-classical literary theory or poetics, but to the conceptual resources provided by what Turner calls the ‘spatial arts’: that is, the practices of an emergent artisan class with whom they had daily contact, and with whom they seem to have identified (playwright, after all, refers not to writing but to materials that have been wrought, as in wheelwright)—and this is where plot enters the scene.

Plot and plat, and the verb platting or later, emplotment, are connected with the notion of a groundplat: a diagram or working drawing used in practical geometry—for instance in surveying, carpentry, and building—involving measurement and reduction to a two-dimensional representation. The plat, plane, or flat, in technical manuals of the time, forms a part of the geometrical triad of a pricke, platte forme, and a body—what we would call today point, area, and body. The plot or plat, then, is a schematic geometrical projection, originally a chart or diagram included in a book for the purposes of demonstration. As Turner shows, playwrights conceptualised the capacity of the theatrical situation to achieve startling ‘imaginative projections’ in terms of a power of ‘translation’ or ‘projection’ borrowed from these geometrical diagrams: ‘an artificial means whereby the viewer may see a series of particular places—remote in time as well as space—that could never be grasped by the naked eye alone’ (Turner 2006: 8). A scene of a battle in France, a scene in the royal castle, temporal and spatial ellipses, all contained within the closed space of the theatre…none of this is natural, nor can it be taken for granted that audiences will accept it. So the playwrights forewarn the audience by using the analogy of the ‘plot’ as a rhetorical device to justify the new narrative and spatial form: the action on the stage is ‘like’ the plot of a piece of land or a house, it schematises a more complex reality. In the following examples given by Turner, dating from the end of the sixteenth century, we see the playwrights overtly petitioning the audience to use their power of imagination in order to become complicit in the function of this projective plotting [here see also the Ultimate Yarnwork video]:

And for this small Circumference must stand,
For the imagind Sur-face of much land
Of many kingdoms, and since many a mile,
Should here be measured out: our muse intreats,
Your thoughts to helpe poore Art
, and to allow
That I may serve as Chorus to her scenes
She begs your pardon, for sheele send me foorth,
Not when the lawes of Poesy doe call,
But as the storie needes…
The world to the circumference of heaven,
Is as a small point in Geometrie,
Whose greatness is so little, that a lesse
Cannot be made
: into that narrow roome,
Your quicke imaginations we must charme,
To turne that world; and (turn’d) again to part it
Into large kingdoms, and within one moment,
To carrie Fortunatus on the wings
Of active thought, many a thousand miles
(Dekker, Old Fortunatus)
…But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraisèd spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object
. Can this cock-pit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O pardon: since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million
And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high uprearèd and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance.
(Shakespeare, Henry V)

‘Plot’ eventually came to mean a diagram of the spatial arrangement of the stage and the various entrances and exits during a play, which was hung on the boundary between off- and on-stage, and ‘subdivid[ed] the narrative action of the play into the entrances and exits of the actors, all within carefully ruled columns and boxes’ (Turner 2006: 23). And indeed, the pivot of theatrical emplotment, as it came to be called, is the boundary between offstage and onstage. This is effectively where the risky business of plotting, the reductive projection of the detailed developments of the story into the limited space and gestures of the theatre, takes place. Emplotment was understood as a kind of projection from the dense complexity of an underlying story into its staged schematisation, in a concept adapted from the popular literature of practical geometry used in the work of the playwrights’ fellow artisans, and this trope from the ‘practical spatial arts’ become hybridized with the inherited traditions of poetics. The history of the word ‘plot’ therefore testifies to the emergence of an epistemological model from a body of professional knowhow and its transfer to the spatial device and narrative forms of the theatre—that is, poetics and its reception understood as ways of knowing. As Turner says, what takes place here is an ‘adapt[ing] [of] a practical knowledge of geometrical form to the realm of aesthetic form, using the methods, habits of thought, and even the economic formations of these technical fields to produce a device—a theatron or “beholding place”’ (Turner 2006: 81).

The last piece of this history falls into place with the convergence, in the late sixteenth century, of plot with the French word complot, originally meaning ‘dense crowd’—a word that brings with it the connotations of intrigue, strategy, possibly with devious or harmful intent. Complot related to a mode of practical intelligence (such as in military strategy) in which deliberation about human action involved the consideration of the spatial disposition of the actors. To the notion of a projection or translation from one space to another, it adds the sense of an ulterior agency controlling the space and players of the theatron (here, possibly, a theatre of war) from outside—the one who pulls the strings and directs the action while keeping the full story hidden backstage.

As the designs and devices of a character in a play become assimilated to the projective plottings of the strategist, and to the directing of the play itself, this enriches the concept of emplotment as ‘the formal decision to represent some events onstage while withholding others from view’ (Turner 2006: 213)—as an incomplete, schematic revelation. According to this developed sense of ‘plot’, as Turner argues, at the limit ‘all modes of ordering perceived experience […] could be said to constitute a preliminary level of emplotment’ (Turner 2006: 24)—plotting, then, as a general epistemological model.

If we make the simple gesture of moving beyond a simple binary model of offstage and onstage, what arises as a speculative surplus from the nexus of the ‘spatial, geometrical and topographical’ and the ‘strategic, deliberative and pragmatic’ senses of plot is a very distinctive schema: that of a potentially endless series of points of view, beholding places—theatrons—each one an information environment coupled with a perspectival orientation, stabilised by a closure which, however, is compromised by its ultimate contiguity with a (manipulative) outside. Which brings us back to the territorial sense of ‘plot’ as an incomplete circumscription of material, and to Singleton’s understanding of design as involving the carving-out of a block of material which may be suspected of carrying with it germs of the outside, ulterior powers that will possibly compromise one’s intentions. In short, what plot suggests is a circumscription made for the purposes of gaining knowledge of some situation, but one that is always incomplete, and thus brings with it introjections from the outside.2

This in turn suggests the schema of the yarnwork, the in camera projection of the investigator’s predicament. The detective seeks to move from a particular ‘beholding place’—the inside of a limited ‘theatre’ in which his perception of events remains constrained by the data immediately available—to a wider field where he would uncover, progressively, the ‘real story’. But the question here is the inverse of the playwright’s: how to move the other way, from the projected diagram—the plot—to that of which it is a projection. As if thematising their own mechanisms, in yarnwork scenes detective shows visually stage this infospatial drama in which the protagonist is constantly trying to escape the local theatron, to discover the way ‘backstage’ so as to reveal the broader global story.

What is really required here—as will be confirmed by any dedicated viewer of such shows—is to maintain a thread between these different mappings of the information-space. Our detective has the local situation, with elements that do not fit, and which solicit her to follow the thread further, or to find the resources to cut into some anomalous clue so as to cut herself out of her current epistemological constraints. She cannot try to read the outstanding clue in terms of the local site, for this is precisely what it isn’t: the statement that shows that the dead man was moving millions of dollars into a Swiss bank account obviously is not a part of the local story about a hapless clerk who had split from his girlfriend and may have been suicidal. But the detective also cannot reformat the local plot entirely in terms of the global story she discovers: to see a homicide as ‘merely’ an incidental effect of the movement of global capital also fails to capture the situation, which of course is also a local—human—tragedy! Either of these paths would dissolve the tension that drives the narrative forward.

What is achieved by the most skilled plotters3is a kind of stereoscopic—or multiscopic—way of looking at things, one that is able to shift between different information-spaces, different theatrons, while maintaining their delicate coherence. Knowledge then becomes a form of navigation, a shifting of perspectives or a movement across transformations, across contexts or through a staggered series of theatrons (and what is navigation, if not plotting?).

Plot twists are the turning points in this navigation. Marrying the spatial, topographical, or graphical sense of the word plot with the temporal sense of a narrative progression, plot twists are the points in the narrative at which one discovers that something which seemed anomalous or counterintuitive at the local level can be explained as the importation or introjection of an element of the wider environment into the local context (what the victim tried to scrawl in blood on the hotel bathroom mirror wasn’t her killer’s name, but the access code for a restricted-access Department of Defence computer account). Having previously achieved temporary stability with a provisional configuration of the available data, as we shift focus, as we change the mode of projection, this data is entirely reconfigured. As in a kaleidoscope, all of the elements shift in relation to one other, but this gives onto a new stability.

These moments of disorientation and reorientation are what constitute, for the reader or viewer, the pleasure of the plot. In the best fictions, as they take place we feel our sense of ourselves as subject of this knowledge-process shifting along with the protagonist’s. Here, Jason Bourne provides the missing link between our fictional and therapeutic models, for the entire conceit of the Bourne series relies on traumatic dissociation. The locality of Bourne’s own psyche bears traces of a wider context of which he has no conscious knowledge—so Bourne’s brain is both theatron and complot. Each discovery of an external fact is also a discovery about himself, a reorientation. But in a more general sense, ultimately ‘trauma’ is simply the condition of locality or contingent sitedness as such. Trauma is an epistemological condition, or the condition of epistemology itself: an incomplete cut between a local site and an outside that has already affected it in some way. It is the introjected traces of the outside, clues betraying the emplotment of a deeper story, which at once provide the constitutive disequilibrium that drives the investigation, and promise the possibility of knowledge.

The plot twist, then, comprises both a stability, a new reconciliation of local and global, and a kind of panic that results from the impossibility of achieving this reconciliation in a single image: there is an oscillation between different orientations in which we find it difficult to grasp one without losing the other. This subjective state can of course be ‘resolved’ in a certain sense, and this is the goal of Bourne’s quest and the aim of any therapy: to reach a level at which one finds a thread, manages to integrate most of the elements so as to become ‘functional’ again. But in a more essential sense it is never resolved, or at least it could always go further. For the concept of plot makes things more complex and more twisted than reaching a ground, finally discovering the kingpin and closing the case. There is not simply a figure and a ground, but an infinite abyss of ‘offstages’, a constantly shifting relation of ungrounding, a potentially endless series of plot twists and complicities which, as in Bourne, tend to draw the investigator himself into their kaleidoscopic maelstrom. This is a question of affordance: how many revelations can the subject of knowledge afford before the grounds of his own self-knowledge are eroded, transformed, shifted, twisted so much by the plot that he becomes a patient rather than an agent of the investigation? In some of the best detective fiction this predicament itself is dramatised, as the investigator realises, on the edge of madness, that they themselves are caught up in the plot-threads they are trying to untangle. A peril which is, in fact, inseparable from the pursuit of knowledge, as evidenced in the sometimes agonising upheavals of the therapeutic situation.


The plot twist is the moment of cognitive reorientation in which the protagonist replots available data according to a new distribution whose principles were lacking in the situation or theatron within which he previously laboured; or rather, all but lacking, since precisely what these fictions show us, once again, is that there is never absolute discontinuity. But the yarnwork marks the moment prior to the plot twist, a moment which, within the drama, overtly thematises and figures, in the form of a diagram, the effort of thinking through the plot. If the plot twist is the moment of cognitive disorientation, a moment of the replotting of the available data, then the moment that directly precedes it, figured in visual media by the yarnwork, is a moment of perplexity. The yarnwork scene dramatizes the anticipation of reorientation, of an incipient plot twist.

Relating this back to the theatrical origins of the word ‘plot’, we can think of a yarnwork as the inverse of emplotment: where the plat was the diagrammatic avatar of the craft of emplotment—the management of the boundary between onstage and offstage, between story and plot, the projection of a dense unseen outside (complot) into a theatron, a beholding place, then conversely, in the yarnwork, the viewer—thus far trapped in a limited theatron—is given to overtly ponder, through the eyes of the protagonist, an incomplete reconstruction of its connection to another space: a diagram which, if completed, would enable navigation the other way, from a local situation to the dense multitude of which it is but a partial projection; to the next moment in the investigation, when the implication of the previous action within a wider plot will become clear. The yarnwork moment logically precedes the unveiling of this ulterior space, the passage ‘backstage’.


Given all of this, one is tempted to say that the ‘extro-scientific detective story’ is after all an impossibility. For, from this point of view, Meillassoux’s insistence, contra Vernes, that philosophical knowledge demands the jettisoning of all empirical detail in favour of an a priori ‘intellectual intuition’ of the principle of absolute contingency, would leave us with a global with no consistent connection to any locality, thus denarrativizing knowledge, discarding information on every side, dropping every thread, and abandoning all reliable possibility of navigation.

Instead, the universe of the detective story is that of a problematic, not a rational-speculative materialism: one that combines the assumption of universal causal coherence with the drama of incomplete (local) cognitive purchase by way of a plot into which anomalous traces of the outside insinuate themselves, drawing the disoriented investigator into ever-widening vistas where his map of the world and of himself will be transformed, twisted, and replotted, across a series of moments whose diachronicity is constitutive of the nature of knowledge itself.

There is always something that stands out from the ground, something that ‘doesn’t add up’ and which cannot be accounted for by local principles. What drives investigation is the theatrical introjection or emplotment of data from the global environment, the clue, the index of plotting at work behind the scenes, the element that doesn’t fit but will be leveraged in order to drive further plotting. The dice are always loaded, continual navigation and reorientation is inevitable. The essential tools of the detective and the therapist alike are the scalpel and the compass.


Boltanski, Luc (2014). Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies. London: Polity.

Freud, Sigmund (1895). ‘The Psychotherapy of Hysteria’, in Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria, tr. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1957).

Lardreau, Guy (1997). Présentation criminelle de quelques concepts majeurs de la philosophie. Arles: Actes Sud.

Mackay, Robin (ed). (2015). When Site Lost the Plot. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

Meillassoux, Quentin (2008). After Finitude. Trans. Ray Brassier. London: Continuum.

Meillassoux, Quentin (2015), Science Fiction and Extro-Science Fiction. Trans. Alyosha Edlebl. Minnesota: Univocal.

Singleton, Benedict (2011). Subtle Empires: On Craft and Being Crafty. PhD thesis. University of Northumbria.

Turner, Henry (2006). The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts, 1580–1630. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vernes, Jean-Réné (1982). Critique de la raison aléatoire. Paris: Aubier Montaigne.

Vernes, Jean-Réné (2000). The Existence of the External World: The Pascal-Hume Principle. Trans. Mary Baker. Ottowa: University of Ottawa Press.

  1. This essay is part of a long-term research project which began with the seminar ‘When Site Lost the Plot’ at Goldsmiths University of London, 7–9 May 2013, expanded proceedings of which were published in When Site Lost the Plot (Mackay 2015). The project was extended during a residency at Bergen Kunsthall, ‘The Ultimate Yarnwork’, 29 Jan–9 Feb 2015, <>. Significant contributions to the work presented here came from discussions with Amanda Beech, Paul Chaney, Sam Forsythe, Reza Negarestani, and Benedict Singleton.
  2. Here we can expand on the analogy with the therapeutic situation by considering how Sandòr Ferenczi’s notion of introjection challenges Freud’s conception of trauma, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, as extrojective defence against the outside. See my ‘The Barker Topos’, in Mackay 2015, 253–68.
  3. See the interview with the ‘nordic noir’ writer Gunnar Staalesen conducted as part of the Ultimate Yarnwork residency, <>.