Toward an Interactive Criticism: House of Leaves as Haptic Interface

And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!
~ Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

When I first read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, I barely got through 50 pages before I stopped doing what most would call “reading” and began to do what most would call “browsing.” While I was indeed playing across the book’s surfaces, flipping rapidly back and forth from one page to another, I wouldn’t describe my experience as a superficial one. This was a browsing that felt more like a frantic burrowing. I didn’t absorb every word, not more than a mere fraction of them, but I was building something substantial nonetheless. My first encounter with the text was a series of glancing blows, a play between the words, the spaces between them, and the shapes the words and spaces make together on the page. Reading the book that first time was more like venturing into the site of an archaeological dig. To this day, when I pick up House of Leaves, I feel like I’m still moving dirt, burying one thing as I uncover another. In this way, the book is about the acts of reading and interpretation, about the various ways we organize data and our own experiences of that data. House of Leaves is about matter and affect — about how we move stuff and how that stuff moves us.

Quotes from Laura Marks and Roland BarthesHouse of Leaves demands what Laura U. Marks, in Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, calls “haptic criticism.” A haptic interface is one that engages our skin before our intellect, our body before our brain. Certain media devices could be described as peculiarly haptic (such as the Xbox Kinect or Apple’s iPad), but all media have the potential to be (or necessarily are) haptic. A book has an odor, a certain weight in our hands, a tactile pleasure at the turn of a page. The film strip has an audible clack as it moves through the projector, and the emulsion dissolves sweetly before our eyes. And, even if these media are rendered mostly intangible, books and films will always have a physical impact on us, causing us to recoil, sigh, bristle, and scream. For Marks, when we write about literary texts, “the task is to make the dry words retain a trace of the wetness of the encounter” (x). Roland Barthes writes similarly in The Pleasure of the Text, “Text means Tissue” (64), a nod to the literal substances from which books are made (pulp, rag, and animal hide), while also alluding to the materiality of language. When we read, we engage the physical object of the book in an intimate way, each of us handling books with our own idiosyncrasies. Some readers will delicately cradle an open book in two hands, whereas others will forcefully bend the cover back and pinch the book violently between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. How we handle a printed text effects how we encounter and interpret its contents.

Quote from Roland BarthesBarthes continues, “What I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface” (12). His use of the word “abrasions” suggests there is indeed something violent about how we interact with a written text. And the act of reading, for better or worse, is something we “impose” upon a text. Thus, Barthes talks further about how “applied reading” (12) disrupts the “integrity of the text” (11). The word “integrity” is italicized (by Barthes), drawing attention to its polyvalency. Applied reading doesn’t just disrupt the value or moral character of a text; applied reading tears at the text’s cohesive fabric, punctures its skin, rips its pages and paragraphs, dissects its innards. This is not only what reading can do, for Barthes, but what it must do. The goal of reading is “not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover” (13). We metaphorically engage the flesh of a word when we focus on the typographical choices that govern how a word looks on the page, but we engage the flesh of a word even more literally when we notice and concern ourselves with how a word feels as it comes out of our mouths. Each word has a shape, a part of our mouths, lungs, throat, or gut that it tickles or mobilizes into action. We don’t just gobble words, but also expel them. This is a biting criticism of another sort; but my work here is about a kind of criticism that bites back. The violence we do to a text is minor when compared to the violence a text can do to us, if we let it.

Texts are Monsters of Affect

Texts are Monsters of Affect

In House of Leaves, Danielewski, refers to this “thing” (the corridor, the Navidson Record, the book itself) that is “beyond the grasp of my imagination or for that matter my emotions” (27). Several words in this short bit (namely “thing,” “grasp,” and “matter”) draw attention to the objectness of literature. Whereas we might otherwise think of literature as making an abstraction of a tangible thing, turning matter into story, Danielewski reminds us of the fact that literature makes a thing of a thing, turning matter in the world into the matter of the page and into the matter inside our skulls. Books are a decidedly monstrous sort of matter. Truant writes: “I felt certain its [the book’s, the corridor’s] resolute blackness was capable of anything, maybe even of slashing out, tearing up the floor, murdering Zampano, murdering us, maybe even murdering you” (xvii).

House of Leaves asks us to (and sometimes forcibly demands that) we consider the ways a book or film can reconfigure us, turning insides into outside, puncturing, bursting, even murdering the reader or viewer. In this way, the book hovers between the genres of horror and science fiction; both are genres that explore epistemological gaps in our thinking about what it is to be human. And both explore the messy stuff that happens to flesh when thinking fails or runs rampant. One imagines a monstrous future; the other uncovers a hideous present. One stops; the other becomes. The skin and bones of House of Leaves (its form) are science fiction; its guts (the messes it makes on the page) are horror. And horror is a genre of affect, and ultimately HOL is a book about affect — a book about the limits of knowledge and about how distortions of what we know (or think we know) impact us and our bodies.

Quote from N. Katherine HaylesFor N. Katherine Hayles, in Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, the monster growling at us from inside House of Leaves is nothingness. Hayles writes, “Combining an unrepresentable topography with an uninhabitable space, the house confronts those who enter its mysterious interiors with the threat of nothingness that, far from being mere absence, has a terrible ferocious agency” (179). Her last three words, “terrible,” “ferocious,” and “agency,” suggest that the hole at the center of House of Leaves is only a nothingness when considered from the perspective of interpretation. The hole, at the level of affect, is rather an abundance, the same abundance that frustrates our reading experience not because we can’t make sense of the book but because the book actively resists our attempts at meaning-making. Hayles continues, “Above all else, the characters in the text, like the humans who read the text, are meaning-seeking animals” (184). The monster in House of Leaves is not a lack of meaning but a festering, not a sorting of matter but matter itself, separate from and always anathema to our crude attempts at representation.

The monster's body is a cultural bodySo often, monsters are figured as metaphors, as pure representative allegories. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen alludes to this when he writes, in “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” that “the monster’s body is a cultural body” (4), suggesting that our monsters are a reflection of culture, abstracted and hideous analogs for real human problems. Cohen writes further that “Monsters are our children. They can be pushed to the farthest margins of geography and discourse, hidden away at the edges of the world and in the forbidden recesses of our mind, but they always return…” (20). Monsters are offspring sent off into the world, detached and disfigured copies that return home to roost. It is exactly this incessant “returning home” that suggests to me that monsters are not in fact metaphors; they are metonyms, chunks (not copies) of us, partially torn away, leaving tough meaty strands that connect us to them. In this respect, horror is not an escapist genre, and House of Leaves is not an escapist text, for there is nothing to (or that we can) escape from; HOL’s horrors do, instead, allow us to explore and revel in these sinews. Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 makes a similar argument when he writes, “for us as human beings, there is no simple ‘going over’ to the side of the non-human,” a relationship he describes as “something like metonymy” (31). The monsters of affect proliferate, virus-like, from the inside, making for what I might call a ruptured metonymy.

The world is increasingly unthinkableThacker begins his book with the words, “The world is increasingly unthinkable,” and I’m caught by the very first three letters, “t,” “h,” and “e,” particularly his choice to use the word “the” and not “a” as a first encounter with the premise for his book. This distinction between the world and a world is explored subtly throughout the rest of the prologue, but it’s his choice here, at the very opening, that fascinates me. A world is an indeterminate place, one particular but undefined locale amongst many possible locales, an oasis of sand in a much larger desert of sand. The world is an altogether more determined and definite sort of place, one locale amongst a dearth of other possible locales, just a finite amount of sand, a lone puddle. While a world is terrifying for all it might allude to, the world is altogether more terrifying for all it excludes. I find myself wondering if his first word is a declarative “the” or a worried and threatened “the,” and I think (and hope) the latter.

And the subsequent word, “world,” is notable for the way it forces my lips and teeth to grapple with it even as my brain fails to. My mind spins listlessly in a failed attempt to unearth exactly what the word itself contains, as my lips pucker, part, slowly wrap around a drawn out “r,” tongue dancing with a barely annunciated “l,” before my teeth close upon the word’s tail end. What’s most beautiful, though, about the word “world” as I say it, is the way it pops open my lips and teeth after it’s been uttered, leaving me eager, at the ready for what follows.

The Fifth word, “unthinkable,” suggests that Thacker’s book is about thought and failures of thought. As distinct from feeling, which is not mentioned and barely alluded to throughout the prologue. Like House of Leaves, Thacker’s book is about what can’t be reasoned, what can’t be believed, what can’t be morally reconciled. Thacker suggests that horror must (or “deserves to”) “be considered as more than the sum of its formal properties” (8). It is in the excess of the formal that Thacker finds and insists on the affective life of horror, attained not through generic properties but through their meticulous modulation. In this way, Thacker’s work moves from metaphor to metonymy in its most materialist dimension, in which thought — what once inhabited us — is uncovered as matter, wild, amorphous matter: “mists, ooze, blobs, slime, clouds, and muck. Or, as Plato once put it, ‘hair, mud, and dirt’” (9).

Reading / Not Reading House of Leaves

Reading House of Leaves ≃ Not Reading House of Leaves

I’ve taught House of Leaves twice and presented on it twice, but I’ve never finished the book. It would be easy for me to excuse myself critically by saying that the book, by its nature, can never be finished. That is true, but by that definition and by any definition, I haven’t finished the book. I estimate that I’ve read about 40% of the words of the book, looked at 60% of the pages, and have read less than half of 1% of the marginalia the book has produced online. This is the stairwell I now find myself at the bottom of — the stairwell of not reading. Sometimes, it’s a lovely, decisive space, a site of willful resistance. But reading and not reading HOL are not, for me, acts of knowing volition. Sean Michael Morris writes, “We do not read House of Leaves. It reads us.”

I’ve spent more time not reading House of Leaves than I’ve spent reading other books. The book haunts me — hits me sidelong when I least expect it. It bubbles to the surface at inopportune moments. And there are holes in the text I haven’t yet fallen into. Holes in the text I probably never will fall into. All the while, the book incessantly urges me and its other readers to examine our looking away — and to examine our compulsion to avoid thinking about or theorizing that looking away. An interactive criticism takes as its subject criticism and so must be unabashed about the many lovely (and not so lovely) shapes of that criticism. Sometimes, the shape of that criticism is a hole or a gap, one we can only hollar into.

This is not for youAnalysis and critical thinking are like eating, things lively and voracious, things that drip and reel. This is the exact sort of work I hope to inspire here — an interactive criticism that considers not only how our work engages a text but also how that text (sometimes forcibly) engages us. Laura Marks calls this kind of reading “mimetic: it presses up to the object and takes its shape” (xiii). Danielewski, writing in the voice of Zampanò, calls it “echolocation” (48).

As a teacher and scholar, the work I do (and the words I speak) are both performative and perforative. Collaborating with students in a peer-driven classroom (or virtual learning space) changes the register of this work. Interactive criticism is, in fact, dependent upon collaboration, both between reader and text and among a cacophony of readers. Murmur breaks to echo when multiple voices resonate at just the right frequency. In this way, the act of reading itself becomes metonymic, as words about words pile one on top of another, not in sense-making linear sequence, but in a metonymic chain of signifiers nonetheless. (The real work of criticism happens in slush piles — in parentheticals, in tangents, and in footnotes to footnotes.) Words have terrain much like the house on Ash Tree lane. Like the house, a word is bigger on the inside than on the outside, and its insides don’t stay politely contained. The inside of a word is the part not about linguistic signification but about guts, not about narrative pathways, but about intestinal ones. As our words unravel, and weave one into another, so do we.

Picture of book pagesHouse of Leaves begins with a taunt, “This is not for you,” five little words left alone on the page, followed by an abrupt and declarative period, left to haunt the gap between the front matter of the book and its guts, between the figments we see on the page and the meat in our brain, five words and a period that hover in the space between representation and understanding. This is affect, the moment where apprehension meets alarm, the moment where what we see just barely touches but does not yet become what we know or believe. A few pages later, Danielewski, in the voice of Johnny Truant, writes, “Hopefully you’ll be able to make sense of what I can represent though still fail to understand” (xv). Like Todorov’s fantastic, interpretation gives way to a dance between the disruption and reconciliation of knowing. HOL revels in the broken flesh at this edge, sometimes protruding like a herniated organ. Our critical encounters with a text, then, must be less about knowing and more about a visceral not knowing. An interactive criticism must not take for granted: the refusal to read, the refusal to know, the vague and impressionistic turns of our encounters with a text. An interactive criticism lures us down a text’s endlessly long hallways and loses us there. An interactive criticism is always only half-written.

Further pedagogical reflections inspired by this piece have been published in a follow-up piece, “The Pedagogies of Reading and Not Reading.”  The video atop this piece, “Viscera,” is a project by Rachel Blume, who made a TrueType font inspired by HOL. Rachel was a student in my 2013 Digital Humanities course. The article was also inspired by a 2012 co-presentation with the amazing Rebekah Sheldon. Here and elsewhere, her brain has found its way deep inside my sentences.

About the Author

Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) is Director of Hybrid Pedagogy and Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an advocate for lifelong learning and the public digital humanities. His personal site can be found at jessestommel.com.

12 Comments
Discussions from the Community.
  1. WOW, this is hot stuff. I mean, hot like the uninterpreted truth of this Earth/spinning kiln and if you have the literal mindset of a potter reading what YOU wrote above — you’d be provoked to attention. Imagine: “skin before intellect” and “body before brain”. What might “frantic burrowing” sound like to a person who uses stuff errupting from magma channels in the deeper layers of Earth — as glazes on pots and as a calling forth for all that seems possible but that is so hybrid that the ‘powers that be’ negate, as a matter of course.

    YET, the freedom of engagement we live with, the trans-disciplinarity that can be like our drinking water (sustaining us day-by-day) carries us forth with serious questions of what talk we walk. I stumbled upon you as I search, happily finding how time does heal many wounds…..(ie. our educational dysfunctiuons) BUT . . . by clicking “return” prematurely I lost )boo-hoo) the essential issue of COURAGE in higher ed. YES, let’s go there together more often…..let’s eliminate uncertainties, narrow the fields and move ahead. And remember — a potter (who uses sediments and rocks from marine deep-sea sources) might be taking YOU literally!

  2. Zach Whalen says:

    This article. My response to it. And the fact that I feel like there needs to be one — is it because I first encountered this in the space of the fifth or ninth very-much-too-late night of crafting a framework or platform for what I suspect is an example of the interactive criticism described here? But is anything really described here? Is it the affect, the festering of meaning in this half-written criticism that’s responsible for the abundance, the overwelling of affect presently driving me to write this comment instead of going home to dinner?

    This is all to say, reading this article (all 100% of it) lead me to a number of places, and since your discussion involves the affect of reading and the anxiety of not-reading, I assume this comment thread is a safe place to disclose my own vexations.

    More to the point: There is definitely something provocative and seductive about critically not reading, but if the intent of a provocation is to provoke, consider me provoked. But why? Is it my l’esprit de l’escalier at having actually made the descent that you’re resisting (unlike the author, I have read 100% of this book) that leads me to read — can I type it? — a sense of smugness in this confession:

    I’ve taught House of Leaves twice and presented on it twice, but I’ve never finished the book. It would be easy for me to excuse myself critically by saying that the book, by its nature, can never be finished. … I estimate that I’ve read about 40% of the words of the book, looked at 60% of the pages, and have read less than half of 1% of the marginalia the book has produced online.

    Or is it just sour grapes on my part? I mean, I’ve taught this book many times — 7? 8? In fact, teaching House of Leaves is, professionally speaking, probably the thing that I’ve been doing the longest and it’s been the focal point for some of my most rewarding and dare-I-say innovative teaching experiences. In 2009 and again in 2010, my students added Zampano’s fictitious sources to an Omeka site (navidson-files.org) and crafted their fictitious contexts — pieces like Carlos Villant’s article in the Village Voice analysis of the relationship between Tom and Will. Zampano cites it on page 250, and now it exists.

    In 2011 I joined Mark Sample, Brian Croxall, Erin Templeton and Paul Benzon in the collaborative teaching experience of re-networking the novel’s forums at thisisnotfor.us.

    The current collaborative teaching project around House of Leaves is even bigger, with more participants (probably 8 of us). A Million Blue Pages stands to be one of the most expansive pedagogical things I’ve ever worked on, with 350+ posts already, and I’m very excited about it.

    Heck, on the original houseofleaves.com, I authored one of the more popular posts (that I just noticed is — nine years later — currently on the forum’s front page because of recent activity).

    And yet despite all this, I’ve got basically one CV line — a conference presentation — on House of Leaves. Half as many as yours, despite my having read twice as much of it as you have. This is my fault, I know, for not doing enough to tell my story. Or maybe for not connecting my research and my teaching. I don’t know.

    But maybe what’s bugging me right now is that, having had this much experience with the book, I wonder if it’s all worth it. Ya know? I mean, this book. My students have worked really hard to respond to it as I’ve asked them to. Several them, I believe, pulled all-nighters. I am blown away by their effort and their creativity. I mean, just look at this stop-motion animation: http://booksafterbooks.tumblr.com/post/77763297398/welcome-to-the-atrocity-in-the-first-engine-room . Or this super-creepy video by one of Mary Holland’s students: http://showsidratherwrite.tumblr.com/post/77656949073 This is crazy good work.

    So maybe I’m disappointed that when I write about their work on facebook or crow about it on twitter, I get, what, 4 likes? 1 favorite? A sprinkle of replies? I’m a little embarrassed by that response, frankly — almost as embarrassed as I am by the fact that for some reason I think those tepid indicators are valid measures of a project’s success in a platform where an inane meta-post about liking my own updates gets three times the response, or as annoyed as I am at myself for apparently steering what was supposed to be a witty and thoughtful response irrevocably toward my own insecurities.

    Maybe what haunts my reading, then, is that I want so much to convince my students and myself that spending time on this book and this assignment they’ve poured their time into has had some value beyond the grade that I must give them, and yet, I don’t know how if I know how to convince them of that.

    Well, this comment is getting long and uncomfortably confessional. I’ve used the word “maybe” 5 times already. So I’ll wrap it up. I’ll try, anyway. I didn’t mean to wander into my own anxieties, but maybe that’s the unlovely shape of this criticism. Or a compulsion to avoid theorizing my story, what I’m remembering now.

    In short, I think it’s fair to say that all of us live at some proximity to personal landscapes of vast shame. And not-reading is a vast, vast landscape for us in academia. For example, I wouldn’t have gotten that reference two sentences ago unless I’d finally gotten around, two years ago, to reading a book I’d been acting like I’d read for many years prior. Nodding at references, changing the subject to avoid getting closer to that wilderness of ignorance.

    But there is literature to read and there is literature to not-read — some conceptual poetry, for example, or Finnegans Wake I might be OK with — but I have a harder time with House of Leaves’s not-readability. To be sure, illegibility, unreadability, and various forms of active erasure and present absences are thematically pervasive within, but it’s so much so that I don’t think that can be all there is. It’s the elephant in the room that Danielewski reminds us of so often that we start to wonder whether that’s really an elephant after all. In other words, there’s anxiety at the core of reading this book that isn’t its epistemological horror or the ontological implications of its affect; it’s the anxiety that that’s all there is. And really, is the book actually all that scary? Really that haunting? Does it truly “read us,” or do we read in its thin satire of academic prose our own anxieties about the fragile contrivances of our own writing?

    I realize, by the way, that “ (asymptote) is not ‘==’ (equivalence), but if I may belabor this programming metaphor, I think I’m saying that your ≃ is perilous close to ‘=’ (assignment).

    But this article. My rambling response to it. What is interactive criticism? Is that what this is? What is its other, then — reactive criticism? If so, how and when does all this get haptic? What have you called for her? I just don’t see it, I think.

    I’m sorry. I hope all this doesn’t sound grumpy but it probably does. If so, it’s likely because I’m hungry and under-rested and not because I don’t appreciate the article or respect you professionally. Thanks for writing this, and thanks for reading this comment. I’m going to go home now.

    • Thanks Zach for the extensive comment. I don’t think what you wrote came off as grumpy. I value the engagement. Honestly, I think the best literary criticism is a start to a conversation, not a reservoir. So, I will admit that provocation was part of my goal — is always part of my goal when I write. This particular piece has gestated since Spring of 2010 — and probably even earlier, since I first read/not-read House of Leaves in 2002

      having actually made the descent that you’re resisting

      What I wonder is whether looking at each word on each page is what we should necessarily be valorizing. We each measure our engagement (or should measure our engagement) in different ways. This from my piece is one of the lines I feel most strongly about: “I’ve spent more time not reading House of Leaves than I’ve spent reading other books,” which is to say that my not reading has been intensely active. It has included talking, researching, writing, making, teaching, wondering, holding, glancing, flipping, filming, watching, etc. The book has consumed me more than any other book, aside from Moby Dick — it just hasn’t compelled me to read as much as it has compelled me to do all these other things.

      In short, I think it’s fair to say that all of us live at some proximity to personal landscapes of vast shame. And not-reading is a vast, vast landscape for us in academia.

      And I would say it shouldn’t be, and that was the reason for my own revelation in the piece — it was actually less about provocation — and not intentionally smug — and more about being vulnerable and admitting that sometimes we write about stuff and dissertate about stuff and teach about stuff that we haven’t finished reading. And we can make our not finishing less shameful by talking about it and valorizing the many productive alternatives. And we can help our students recognize that finishing is not always the best outcome — in writing, reading, learning…

      And really, is the book actually all that scary? Really that haunting? Does it truly “read us,” or do we read in its thin satire of academic prose our own anxieties about the fragile contrivances of our own writing?

      Yes. To each of these things. For some readers. And I think it’s important for us to not decide for each other — and especially not for our students — whether our reasons for turning away from a text are valid.

      • Zach Whalen says:

        … being vulnerable and admitting that sometimes we write about stuff and dissertate about stuff and teach about stuff that we haven’t finished reading. And we can make our not finishing less shameful by talking about it and valorizing the many productive alternatives.

        I think what you’re describing here is a kind of anxiety (or call it a fever since Derrida keeps trying to slip in here — and hey, if we’re going to talk about a locus for productive pretending-to-have-read,we’ll find that we’ve been talking about Derrida all along; vice versa), and that anxiety is a productive space that I almost fear losing if we valorize it. It’s certainly productive, as you demonstrate. (And I’m relieved, by the way, to re-read and realize that the smugness I thought I recognized — and I apologize for calling that sort of negative attention to your words — was in fact, as you clarified, more just to recognize how, in fact, not-reading can be very fruitful.)

        My point might be that the anxiety works the other way, too — on having-read, what do I have to show for my effort? — so maybe I need to find a productive angle within that anxiety. I alluded to some of that, like the irony of seeking external approval by facebook likes, and I’ll add to those another self-conscious admission that I recognize that if I seek to delineate a contrast between reading and not-reading, I move inevitably toward figuring “reading” as a zero-sum game of interpretation. I definitely don’t want to go there, so what reductionist impulse is pushing me in that direction? I don’t know.

        Well, I’ve been thinking about this throughout the day, and I look forward to followup work. It’s occurred to me that while we can theorize not-reading here in the comforting obscurity of a comment thread — a modality surely tilting toward one of the most thoroughly not-read of internet discourses, interactive criticism is going to get stickiest in the classroom, where our students are already masters of not-reading.

        I don’t just mean that students don’t read things, even though that’s true, but that some of my favorite students are those that are the best at playing at reading. As I think back on my own undergraduate and graduate work, I really mastered not-reading, which in my case was a reaction to the unyielding linearity of chronological time up against the always-already zero sum of reading as it figures into a classroom experience: read this, produce artifactual evidence of having read, get a grade.

        So what’s exciting about a critical practice of not-reading is its potential to build a bridge between something students are already good at. I think this would be really, really hard. Reflecting on my own teaching, I struggle for a balance between empowering students to challenge me or the texts while maintaining enough sense of authority that they believe me when I’m telling them they’re doing good work or that they could have done better. The idea that I’ve already read these things (and notice: the idea) is a weighty measure in that balance, and it’s hard to give that up.

        But then, House of Leaves. Even though not-reading is something that students are experts at, House of Leaves is a book that I find has the potential to get past that camouflage. Most of my students actually read all the way through to the end, and I can tell because of how they talk about it. It could be that they’re even better at not-reading than I think, but the sense of surprise I detect suggests otherwise. Which I guess is why I find House of Leaves hard to understand as an example of productive not-reading.

        I’m not going to decide what’s a valid choice for you, though. I’ll just let Chuck’s scolding suffice.

  3. Zach Whalen says:

    Just a quick followup and correction. Where I wrote this:

    What have you called for her? I just don’t see it, I think.

    I meant “here”, not “her”. And while I guess I do mean that partly as a rhetorical question, I’m also genuinely not sure I understand what you mean by interactive criticism or, relatedly, how to move toward it. I mean, it’s quite possible I’m just overlooking or misreading you as well. From conversation on Twitter, it looks like you have a follow-up planned, so I’ll look forward to that.

    • Brief comment to your question here with more in response to your other comment. The title is “Toward an Interactive Criticism” because I’m here still working out exactly what an “interactive criticism” might look like. I have another 3000 words written on this subject (I did indeed stop my criticism mid-stream, as I allude to at the end), so there will either be a follow-up piece, or I’ll expand this for a longer publication. What I do argue about Interactive criticism here is that it: 1) recognizes that media is haptic and that we engage even seemingly intangible media in a visceral way; 2) it is an encounter with a text in which we do something to the text and the text does something to us; 3) it acknowledges that looking away and theorizing that looking away is a critical gesture; 4) it is always unfinished.

  4. Côme Martin says:

    Interesting piece, and engaging thoughts, though, like Zach, I’m surprised by your calling “House of Leaves” unreadable. “Only Revolutions”, maybe, yes; “House of Leaves”, certainly not.
    Oh, and academics really have to stop coloring the word “house” blue (especially when it’s inconsistent): maybe it’s just be, but it comes off as pale imitation at best, and embarrassing worshipping at worst.
    I’m both glad and surprised “House of Leaves” continues to be dissected and discussed 14 years after its publication. It really was a leap for literature in many respects, and has reawakened interest for the book as object that was so prevalent in the 1960s, and for that I’m glad (I wonder if Visual Editions would exist without Danielewski). But I also feel, somehow, that we now need to go beyond it, or perhaps to give recognition to other, less well-known works that are as arresting… Perhaps it’s also a wish on my part to not consider “House of Leaves” and its author as a one-hit wonder, go figure.

    • I do not think the book is unreadable. What I would say is that the book complicates the act of reading and asks us to think critically about our reading and not reading. And I while I think the book reads us as much as we read it, I would say this is a potential of every book. Ultimately, this piece is meant to be about reading and the objectness of literature and criticism more than it is meant to be an analysis of House of Leaves.

  5. Hey, I want to play!

    This issue of reading/not reading, which was taken up on the Twitterwebs last night, is very interesting to me. Part of my reaction is conditioned by the recent projects and theoretical offerings of someone like Kenneth Goldsmith, which I am respectfully not supportive of. I enjoyed reading this post because few books interest me more than House of Leaves and few things interest me more than personal and collaborative hermeneutics based on this novel. That being said, I read Danielewski as deeply influenced by postmodern thinkers (he worked on the sound for the Derrida documentary, which is incredible), and if there’s one truth about that group it is how deeply involved they were with exhaustive, all-consuming close reading. Yes, this is ironic considering how frequently people misinterpret postmodern textual strategies as being anti-meaning, anti-authorship, and even anti-reading. I find that nothing could be further from the truth. House of Leaves certainly invites non-linear, even non-completionist reading strategies, as Johnny almost begs us at times to put the novel down, but I find this to be more of a tropological invitation than a literal one. Like you, I’ve spent so much time outside the margins of this text while thinking about it that it may rival and surpass the time actually spent reading, but I could say the same for almost any text I am invested in, for example, John Keats’ “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be.” Furthermore, Jesse Stommel, I am here to scold you! Finish this book, every single word, immediately, so that you become even more obsessive about it!

    • Zach Whalen says:

      … Part of my reaction is conditioned by the recent projects and theoretical offerings of someone like Kenneth Goldsmith, which I am respectfully not supportive of. …

      Goldsmith is the other voice haunting this fray, I think. I can imagine lots of good reasons to respectfully withhold support, though I’m interested to hear your take on it. Of his work, I’ve just read Uncreative Writing, and I found it vaguely inspiring. Partly, I actually relished the fact that this was the first non-fictional text in I don’t know how long that I read from beginning to end for no other reason than that I wanted to and I found it interesting.

      Johnny almost begs us at times to put the novel down, but I find this to be more of a tropological invitation than a literal one.

      This is well put. It’s almost like putting it down gives the book even more power. This is more power than it deserves, perhaps, but as Jesse’s work demonstrates, that power could be productive.

      • Chuck Rybak (@ChuckRybak) says:

        Okay, so a few words about Goldsmith then… First, I’ll say that poetry is my main area of study, especially 20th century and contemporary American (yes, I’m a digital humanities impostor), so sometimes I might come at this from an overly tribal point of view. Still, and it’s hard to say this without sounding cliche, but to my ear Goldsmith is the voice of avant privilege. How nice to not have anything invested in reading, to be able to throw work together without an advanced level of craft and skip right to the theorizing which (surprise!) always seems to be more about Goldsmith’s vision than anything else. To be fair, this is how the postmodern theorists were for me in grad school–the discussion always seemed to be about the theory with practice existing light years away, among the unreachable but inhabitable planets. Of course, it wasn’t until I really read Derrida on my own that I really got his vision and that it needed to be abstracted from literally studies to do so. Anyway, where I run into more trouble with Goldsmith, who offers himself as avant garde while firmly supported by hefty grant-giving bodies and U Penn as an institution, is what happens when we switch to non-white, non-male voices, etc. Is it okay to engage but “not read” Adrienne Rich (say, “Diving into the Wreck”); is it okay to engage with and theorize Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” from a position of partial knowledge/reading? What about “Invisible Man”? What about disadvantaged writing populations that have yet to reach us and are desperate to? When I think of those contexts, Goldsmith to me seems, frankly, utterly free of the urgency required of meaningful art. Do I dare invoke the name of Lorca in a context of what it means to read and not read? I own the ‘Uncreative Writing’ anthology, and I’d say there is one work, total, that is worth engaging in there, and I feel even that is an editorial accident.

        But this is me waxing on Goldsmith and has nothing to do with you folks, so ignore my grinding ax! But back to Danielewski for a moment: I consider him to be an avant garde artist, precisely because his work reaches the public on its merit rather than arriving as a prepackaged theoretical construct of “the experimental”; his work is experimentation in full, not merely the trope of experimentation. Danielewski is invested and it shows. And as I said before, it’s in my opinion the first book to truly perform postmodernism in a way that sheds self-awareness as a confining trope and truly embraces it as a creative one.

        And to your point Zach, “It’s almost like putting it down gives the book even more power. This is more power than it deserves, perhaps, but as Jesse’s work demonstrates, that power could be productive,” this is really resonating with me, as is Jesse’s original expression as a whole. And maybe it confirms Jesse’s original point: It feels good to have this book in my head, even if it’s not in my hands at the moment.

        Thanks for posting comments!

  6. Davin Heckman says:

    I have been doing some research and writing on “Netprov” works recently, and think that the question of reading/not reading is a productive one. I often remind myself when reading a work of electronic literature is that the number of books sold does not translate into the number of books read, page visits don’t necessarily equal absorption into the text. So, there is something to be said for not reading things…. we do an awful lot of it, even when we do read things. I am surrounded by books that I have read with my own little greedy agendas. And then, there are a few books that I have picked up with the intention of exposing myself to the mercy of the text. In digital realms, there are many works I know, but few that know me. With regards to Netprov works, depending on the medium, there is little chance that one can read the work in the singularity of its unfolding if one simply missed it. (LA Flood Project, for instance, was something that I read closely after the fact… and though I find much to value in it, I miss it even as I read the documents that support it.) On the other hand, there are works that can be read as they are built in their native context, in which the reading of the work requires an engagement with one’s attention and memory. (I did play along with the Speidishow and I feel like I understand that work, even if what I read is accentuated by the volume of tweets and the scraps that are forgotten to me.) I think that we are talking about texts and the archive after digitization, of which Derrida was the prophet…. the last one to read exhaustively before the machines took over and such work became anachronism. The thing for me, however, is trying to expose myself to the world of the work completely if I am going to participate in it. To become overwhelmed by the fanaticism of the work… in this case, it would seem to me that it is to be wrapped in the confusion, in the desperate effort of the reader to hold the narrative in their mind. Which is to say, that maybe you don’t read the work completely… only that the work gnaw on you.

  1. By Grosse semaine – 28 février | Poème Sale on February 28, 2014 at 7:48 am

    […] devrais aller. Toute la littérature te semble être le même livre plate? Cherche plus loin vers la littérature qui est vécue d’abord par ton corps, et ensuite par ce qu’il te reste d’intellect. Il s’en passe des affaires à la […]

  2. […] Jesse Stommel, “Toward an Interactive Criticism: House of Leaves as Haptic Interface.” […]

Leave a Comment Join the fray.