Unfinished Books

I tried to read this book once…

HoL reader blood
AHS: House of Leaves

Actually, it could make a very cool season of American Horror Story 

– the “story” in House of Leaves, anyway. But, as N. Katherine Hayles points out in her reading of the text as an example of remediation, the content is contingent upon the form, in this case, of the material book and its physical and textual properties in the print medium. How could the book, House of Leaves, be remediated into another form of media like film or television without radically uncoupling the form and content in a way that would make it something different entirely?

House of Leaves is exactly the kind of “enacting the argument” example that I want us thinking about in order to design digital texts in which the form of the text and the reading experience that form facilitates is wedded firmly to the content, whether poems, stories, journalism, nonfiction narrative, academic argument, whatever.

Remediation of the Self

We didn’t spend a whole lot of time talking in class about that next-to-the-last section of “Remediation” by J. David Bolter and Richard Grusin, but certainly  Hayles draws on the central idea of that section:

“Media are part of our world as much as any other natural and technical objects. Whenever we engage ourselves with visual (or verbal) media, we become aware not only of the objects of representation but also of the media themselves. Instead of trying to be in the presence of the objects of representation, the subject now defines immediacy as being in the presence of media. In this remediation of the self, the fascination with media functions as the sublimation of the inital desire for immediacy, the desire to be present to oneself.”

in making her claim that “House of Leaves grounds subjectivity in a dynamic, ongoing material relation with the richly diverse medial ecology in which we are all immersed” (804). Our consciousness is mediated and remediated endlessly and this seems a very appropriate thing to consider as we grapple with the shock that comes from this past week’s revelations about how our subject-hood – our personal data – has been harvested (oooh, very horror story-esque!) for political use. On a daily basis, we are, like the readers of House of Leaves, “enmeshed…inside [various media], receiving messages but also constituted by the messages that percolate through the intersecting circulatory pathways” of those media (Hayles 803). We compose About pages and fill in profile data; we upload pictures that represent our physical form; we take quizzes and play games (that facilitate the scraping of our personal, private data) that help us construct a persona, a subjectivity, even a consciousness not only for others but even for ourselves. How we mediate and remediate ourselves affects who we are.

Google Arts and Culture result image
I am he as you are he as you are me/And we are all together

Jesse Stommel likewise emphasizes the “haptic (physical) experience of the text of House of Leaves and notes that this book, like all literature and like that whole remediation of the self, “makes a thing out of a thing.” I find this all fascinating in so many ways and I do think it all has implications for us as writers. However, I think there’s something even more interesting in a confession Stommel makes about his own interaction with HoL.

TL;DR, Part II: I Just Can’t Even With This Text

When Stommell confesses that, although he has presented on this book numerous times yet never actually finished, it, I felt so, so very vindicated, y’all!

Chris Pratt House of Leaves meme
Well, really, I just am not sure it matters.

Stommel says,

“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.”

And, later, in talking about his engagement as a literary critic with a text he has read less than half of:

“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.”

After reading Naomi Baron’s (and so many others’) lamentations about our not-reading habits in the digital age, I have to confess that it does my heart good to see a literary critic admit that sometimes it’s not really necessary to have read every word in order to make sense of a text and to draw out its intricacies, implications, and …

When another expert on the text, Zach Whalen, calls Stommel out on this issue in a comment, Stommel’s reply says something that I’ve been thinking:

“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”

Obviously, the ways in which we, as writers, must engage our readers (and the kinds of reading practices we need to cultivate and enable) must be bound to our rhetorical purpose and audience. It would be unethical – perhaps even immoral – in most technical and professional writing situations to create texts that are puzzles for the reader to figure out or that are difficult to the point of obscurity. Much nonfiction/informative writing, likewise, has an ethical obligation to be easily comprehensible and clear.

Still, as someone who has struggled through many difficult texts of many types (literary theory, modernist/pomo fiction, hypertexts, game texts like Device 6), I would argue that there can be great value in making the reader “work for it.” Puzzling out solutions, grappling with obscurity, even not finishing a text (or, on the flip side, obsessively re-reading as I have done with one of my favorite “difficult” texts, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, one of Hayles’s reference points in her analysis of House of Leaves) can lead to cognitive breakthroughs and insights that “easy” reading simply can’t.

And, what beach read or USA Today article is going to result in something like this enormous (and ongoing) compendium of commentary, analysis, and annotation of House of Leaves?

What would be the fun in that?

Work Cited:

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Saving the Subject: Remediation in House of Leaves.” American Literature vol. 74, no. 4, 2002, pp. 779-806. http://read.dukeupress.edu/american-literature/article-pdf/74/4/779/390451/o4.pdf

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