I discovered House of Leaves during the first year of my undergrad. It had been published 3 years earlier in 2000. To briefly summarise it’s a haunted house novel about a house bigger on the inside than the outside; a reworking of the minotaur in the labyrinth myth; a critical theory-heavy film studies monograph; and two or three family dramas all rolled together into a truly inspiring piece of fiction. Apart from where it’s non-fiction. Will Slocombe, my tutor at that time, recommended it to me; he’d written a little about it, a monograph and a chapter by then. That same week a stoner friend of mine recommended it to me too. He’d read it in three days in a coffee shop, taken a notebook-full of notes. It’s that kind of a book. Here’s what it looks like:
But it also looks like this:
And like this:
And like this:
Danielewski is motivated, in this work, by how we touch, and interact with our reading artefacts. His deep love for the bound-book form emanates from every page as he tries to show us what it can do. In my recent work I’ve begun to draw on the study of haptic engagement, of our tactile interaction with objects, both phenomenologically and neurologically, and it struck me that some of those ideas might be a good way-in to looking at House of Leaves, and explaining why it’s more than just beautiful typography.
Following from this I would now say that as readers we are ‘kinaesthetes.’ Kinaesthetics, in biology, is the continual production of a conscious and non-conscious body-image, an awareness of our limbs in space from a combination of vision, muscle tension, and a proprioceptive feedback about the position of our joints, and the tips of our fingers and toes. Significantly, recent studies have shown that this kinaesthetic body-image can be expanded so as to include the tools we are using at a point in time. This means that our internal body-image is malleable.
I appropriate the term, ‘kinaesthetic’ to suggest an aesthetics of bodily interaction and body-image production, allowing for the capacity of bodies to change and recruit tools, to surprise us with their current shapes. While we might naturally be kinaesthetes of our own bodies, I would like to look instead at how we receive textual bodies, and how an awareness of their shape can be brought to consciousness and made malleable in much the same way as our in-built kinaesthetic experience.
Now, Jerome McGann says that the written text is:
“a laced network of linguistic and bibliographical codes…[S]uch matters as ink, typeface, paper, and various other phenomena…are crucial to the understanding of textuality…[A]ll texts, like all other things human, are embodied phenomena, and the body of the text is not exclusively linguistic” (McGann, Textual Condition, 13)
It is out of this mess of material stuff, so well documented by textual criticism and book studies, that English Studies has so often selected the script content’s effects and interactions, and privileged them at the expense of the other influential material elements. McGann’s work has been vital in displacing this automatic privileging of content as the ultimate meaner, allowing for an image of the text, a body-image, which is materially aware, kinaesthetic.
I would like to consider a particular aspect of what should properly be included in this kinaesthetic image. A useful analogy to have set up first is that of Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ work on the ‘Extended Mind’ which sought to dispel the notion that our cognitive events occurred solely within the confines of skin and skull. That work most famously discussed a fictional Alzheimer’s patient named Otto who replaces his wounded long-term memory with the use of a notepad. In that use, a function, which if it had occurred in Otto’s mind would be considered ‘cognitive,’ is spread-out onto his environment, extending his cognition beyond his material brain.
A book, then, is often thought of as the brain, as the ‘where it all happens’ of meaning. But ‘text’ can describe operations of meaning which exist beyond the material book-brain, in the readers holding them, and in the milieu of their production. We should perhaps think of a text then, not as a thing, even in a particular instance, but instead as an interaction triggered by the material object, and I’ll restrict the discussion here to books, a material book object meeting an equally embodied reader-subject. The reader brings their baggage, mental and physical, and the book brings its own too, both lexical and material. The text’s meaning is typically produced in the play of this meeting, but it can also sometimes be produced primarily in the body of the book, sometimes primarily in the body and mind of the reader, and, I will argue, at other times primarily in the world outside of the artefact. As analogous to the Extended Mind thesis, the material book-brain, when paired with an active embodied reader, becomes a text, recruiting whatever it needs in order to produce meaning.
I am, of course, indebted in such ideas to Barthes’ essay, ‘From Work to Text,’ where he suggests that a text is immune to single interpretations, and is concerned with a web of interactions surrounding an artefact and reader, a polyphony of interpretation, origination, and intertextuality, aspects which are necessarily untheorisable and unquantifiable in the particulars of their effects. I would like to explore, however, specific, identifiable ‘calling-outs’ from books to events outside of their immediate material existence, and outside of the reader’s own typical interpretation strategies, particular events a work which do two things: first expand our notion of what should properly be considered as being included in the body-image of the text, in the same way that using a tool expands our kinaesthetic body-image, and second extend the capacity of the page to mean, in line with the recruitment aspect of Clark’s Extended Mind thesis.
I would like to dub these occurrences ‘kinaesthetic extensions.’ When we have become complacent with what a text is, a kinaesthetic extension is an instance in a work which teaches us to expand that comfortable image of how far a text reaches, whilst also providing a new extensive way of meaning.
The work being done on food in Shakespeare by Sally Templeman indicates a way into this notion. She has explored the external events of the human-filled pie presented at the close of Titus Andronicus being served at the same time as the cooking fires were well underway in the inn kitchens neighbouring the playing space. The confusion of being shocked at the cannibalism occurring on stage, whilst simultaneously salivating at the smell of cooking meat just a wall away must surely be considered as a part of the text.
This, I think, is best thought of as a ‘kinaesthetic extension.’ By design, Titus… ‘calls-out’ to the kitchens, recruiting them in a theorisable production of meaning, which, if not wholly fixable in its effects, is at least predictable in the typical range of responses it might trigger. The kitchens are a site of meaning very different to the material reality of the performance, or the viewer’s typical interpretive strategies. In this effect Shakespeare expanded what might rightly be considered a part of the play, and simultaneously extended the play’s capacity to produce complex meaning.
Let’s look at another example in a poem by E.E. Cummings, the first from the collection 95 Poems:
If you haven’t come across this poem before it’s a great example of one of Cummings’ almost haiku like forms. At first it looks like a mess of letters, but then we come to see the words, just four of them; in the parenthesis: “a leaf falls,” and surrounding that: “loneliness.” It’s arrangement enacts the falling of the leaf described, the alternating ‘af’ and ‘fa’ in the 4th and 5th lines suggesting the leaf’s twisting descent on its way to the longest line, ‘ee-ness,’ that forms the ground. In this respect it is almost a concrete poem. In Barry Marks’ extensive discussion of these few words he says that:
“Cummings’ poem does not make an assertion about loneliness. Such an assertion would not have been very interesting…Instead, the poem combines the abstract idea and the concrete image in such a way as to show us something…it asks us to look at the printed page” (Marks, E.E. Cummings, 23).
What, then, is particularly important about the materiality of this poem? Marks asks us to look at the word outside of the parenthesis:
“Thanks to the modern typewriter,” he says, “whose letter ‘el’ (l) doubles as the figure (1), Cummings shows us that a very commonplace word is really a quite singular word. It states its meaning five times. It says ‘loneliness,’ but it also says, ‘one-one-one-iness’ (that is, the quality or condition of being ‘I’)” (Marks 23)
The significance of the typography is only available if we understand that the text has extended beyond the material artefact of the poem from which it originates. It’s not enough simply to see that there are what appear to be numeral ‘ones’ on the page, because then we would misread the poem, we couldn’t read the word ‘loneliness.’ When we read the poem, when we give it our time, it ‘calls-out’ to the machinic element of the typewriter Cummings composed on. The constraints of the typewriter are not a part of the poem, anymore than the kitchens surrounding Titus Andronicus’ first performances were a part of the play, but they are a part of the text. Cummings’ poem is pedagogic in this regard; these meanings of repeated singularity in ‘loneliness’ are not being produced on the page, or simply in the reading of the page, they are being produced in a site beyond the page, in the page’s historical material construction, that we must be educated into pulling to the text in order for it to manifest its extended meanings.
With this in place we can now see that the poem is a mess of singulars and articles: to start with, it’s the first poem in 95 Poems, labelled simply ‘I,’ or one, and now the first line potentially reads ‘one,’ then ‘a,’ the indefinite article. Or, as Iain Landles argues, it might read ‘la,’ the French feminine singular, followed, in the second line, by ‘le,’ the masculine (Landles 38). With Marks and Landles readings in mind we might well ask whether the separation of the sexes there refers to the two els, now ones, of the fifth line, which sit paired, whilst the wholly separate other ones sit at opposite ends of the clipped lines 1-8. What can make us feel worse when we are lonely, after all, than seeing a happy pairing? But, to the contrary, there might now be a tension in the letters after ‘leaf,’ from the second half of line four, which now reads “all’s one, one-iness,” or “one-liness,” a statement, that we continually live ‘at one’ with the world, which subverts, trivialises, or perhaps provides a Whitman-esque solution to any temporary feelings of loneliness.
None of this would present itself were it not for the typewriter being dragged out of obscurity and into the text. Marks concludes that:
“Cummings’ treatment of ‘loneliness’ adds to the word not a semantic quality but what critics of the visual arts call a ‘plastic quality.’ He does not deepen or extend its meaning in any way; it has suddenly become vital to the touch, as it were, and has become an object of delight” (Marks 24)
Something different is going on here than a text merely referring with its content. When the poem talks about an apocryphal single leaf falling it doesn’t bring the materiality of leaves into the text’s meaning, only meaningfulness, as a single leaf falling relates metaphorically to loneliness. When the poem ‘calls-out’ to the typewriter, however, it brings the materiality of that object into meaning, and not meaningfulness; the typewriter’s operation has very little to do with loneliness, and yet it holds much of the burden, in the poem’s extended text, of producing meaning.
It is as following on from Cummings’ project of kinaesthetic extension in this poem that I think we can best start to understand certain aspects of Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Consider the moment, late in the novel, when the internal dimensions of a stairwell within the house being investigated suddenly fantastically expand: the space of the house warps, and stretches the rope from which an injured character, being hoisted to the top, almost there, is suspended, dangling over the mouth of an ever-growing black abyss. That rope, despite, as we’ve been told, being able to withstand several thousand pounds of tension, is drawn tight, tighter, and then… In a traditional novel the brief description of these events which Danielewski offers would be the end of a tense paragraph. But in House of Leaves this description, still only a few words, is spread over 12 pages. We riffle through them, hungry to work out what is about to occur, and then we realise, now, slowly turning the last three pages with a sense of hideous finality as the rope
It’s a masterful piece of control over the reader, dictating our hands’ actions in the world as well as the movement of our eyes, and the frenzy of our mind. It accelerates the action of turning the pages, at the same time as making our heart beat faster. And that final three page ‘snaps’ is a visual in line with Cummings’ falling leaf, less subtle perhaps, but of the same school. Where Cummings’ leaf slows us down and spins us about with eddies of orthographic topology, Danielewski’s near empty pages make us breathlessly rush, our hands unable to keep up with our eyes in clearing the pages. There’s something oddly invigorating in the making of the usual crawl of turning leaves into a tumble, where broken sentences, broken words, need to be held in working memory for reconfiguration as soon as the hands and eyes can provide just enough content for comprehension.
In order to best make sense of this effect we must consider how Danielewski, like Cummings, has his work ‘call-out’ to a site of meaning beyond its material body. Danielewski says that:
“My view of placing text on the page - aside from being influenced by the likes of E. E. Cummings or maybe some John Cage - was actually cinematic. The point wasn’t just to get really obtuse in the placement of the word. I was very interested in how the reader moves through a book. I’ve never talked to anyone who didn’t feel a sense of elation when they’d read, say, 80 pages in an hour, because something was moving quickly - or expressed some sort of frustration because it took them an hour to read ten pages. So I began to realize that cinema has an enormous foundation of theories on how to control the viewer’s perception” - Danielewski
Danielewski here discusses his choice to expand his text by including aspects of film. There is no particular referred to film which is meaningful with regards to House of Leaves, instead the text makes the grammar of film in general an available site for meaning in tandem with the work of the material book. Mark Hansen identifies the swift procession of the sparsely populated pages with “cinematic effects of temporal acceleration,” and it is an awareness of the equation of medial speed with temporal speed and tension that makes this effect work. After all if we don’t associate a swift turning of the pages with tension, then we would not be receiving the extensive text that Danielewski is trying to present to us. We might well link flipping pages to boredom or skim reading were it not for our training in
Throughout, House of Leaves ‘calls-out’ to film, music, books, and representational art in its desire to produce extensive meaning. It also draws on the digitisation of the written word as it was already established at the end of the nineties during the book’s gestation. From the sizeable index functioning as a search engine, to the myriad footnotes acting as hyperlinks that actually form entire parallel narratives, House of Leaves aims to interrogate the digital challenge to the material book. We are never allowed to forget this agenda as every instance of the word ‘house’ in the work is coloured blue,
another external reference to film, perhaps, with blue screens used throughout nineties special effects movies, therefore hinting at a site of infinite inscriptive possibility. But it also, of course, makes us think of online links, blue words that can whisk us away to just about anywhere. Blue effects screens, and blue links on computer screens, are brought together in these frequent instances, further examples of external forces being called upon to mean, in conjunction with one another as well as with the material book itself, altering our perception of where the locus of meaning is properly found within a text, and thereby readying us for any future works which might deploy the same or similar codes.
In Hansen’s study of what he termed the ‘digital topography’ seen in the book he says that:
“In an age marked by the massive proliferation of...apparatuses for capturing events of all sorts, from the most trivial to the most monumental, House of Leaves asserts the nongeneralizability (or nonrepeatability) of experience...This is precisely why House of Leaves is particularly well suited to theorize the medial shift in the function of the novel. As a corporeal palimpsest of the effects of mediation - including the mediation that it performs itself - House of Leaves practices what it preaches, always yielding one more singular experience each time it is read” (Hansen, Digital Topography, 606)
Mediation, is, of course, an example of a kinaesthetic extension, one type of calling-out.
Cummings, in his call to the typewriter, is looking for, but will never find, a wholly generalisable experience, a predictable response in the reader. Danielewski’s work in House of Leaves, however, ‘calls-out’ to the more abstract terms of ‘film grammar,’ or ‘the computer, the internet,’ and in so doing aligns itself with the project which comes next, the project after the questions that Cummings, and other Modernists, began to ask systematically for the first time. Consider the mileu that the two writers were writing in. Cummings: surrounded by artists and thinkers questioning the experience of the subject in the world, and armed only with language, form, and a typewriter. Whilst Danielewski had access not only to language and form, but also to the Modernist’s prior questioning, taken for granted by his university education, and was armed, not with a typewriter, but with an internet enabled computer, and a publishing system able to accommodate the work he would produce.
House of Leaves demonstrates in its kinaesthetic mediations that there is no repeatable experience, only ever iterations; no text can be received by two readers in the same way because they and their subjective experience are a significant part of that text. We can rarely talk about what a specific reader brings to the textual interaction, however vital that might be to understanding the phenomenological experience of reading. But the pedagogic extension of texts beyond their material triggers, in such instances as Cummings’ typewriters, and Danielewski’s film grammar and digital concerns, can represent theorisable elements working outside of the embodied page, outside of the reader’s typical strategies, and within the kinaesthetically extended text.