Renetworking House of Leaves in the Digital Humanities

August 18th, 2011 § 10 comments

House Of LeavesMark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel House of Leaves (2000) presents a paradox to the literary scholar working within the digital humanities. On one hand the massive, labyrinthine novel offers so many ambiguities and playful metaleptic moments that it would seem to be a literary critic’s dream text, endlessly interpretable, boundlessly intertextual. On the other hand, with its layers of footnotes, metacommentary, and self-conscious invocation of literary theory, the novel seems to preemptively foreclose any and all possible interpretative moves.

Indeed, as Danielewski himself has said, “I have yet to hear an interpretation of House of Leaves that I had not anticipated”1 While we should take Danielewski’s proclamation as a kind of reverse echo of Warhol’s disingenuous denial of any intention in his artwork, the fact remains that the novel’s hyperconscious awareness of itself, combined with the important scholarly criticism from the likes of Katherine Hayles and Mark Hansen, as well as the continuing exegetical flood generated by legions of fans online—take all this together and it seems impossible that there is anything new to say about House of Leaves.

What do you say about a book that attempts to say everything about itself?

How do you say something new about a text that has been discussed, dissected, and picked over by thousands of persistent and incisive minds?

And how might a digital humanities sensibility reinvigorate a thoroughly worked-over literary text?

Jessica Pressman has convincingly argued that House of Leaves is a “networked” novel in at least two senses: the novel is acutely aware of digital networks and the circulation of knowledge online; and ideal readers will adapt a “networked reading strategy” as they make sense of the book, encountering companion works such as the album Haunted by Poe (aka Danielewski’s sister) and Danielewski’s own The Whalestoe Letters.2 To these two forms of the networked novel, my ProfHacker colleague Brian Croxall recently suggested another: reading the novel as part of a network. That is, Brian wants his upcoming undergraduate class at Emory University to read House of Leaves alongside of other classes at other institutions.

After some wrangling of syllabi and schedules, Brian Croxall has gathered a group of us who are teaching House of Leaves at the same time toward the end of October: Paul Benzon (Temple University), Erin Templeton (Converse College), Zach Whalen (University of Mary Washington), and myself at George Mason. The context for each of our classes is different: Paul’s class is a capstone course on literature, media, and the archive; Erin’s is an honors course on the contemporary novel; Zach’s is a senior seminar; Brian’s is a digital humanities class; and my own course is post-print fiction. Because of the varied courses involved (not to mention diverse institutional contexts), we see great value in reading House of Leaves as a network.

Networked Assignments

Right now we are in the process of determining what kind of assignments our five classes can share. They range from the simple to the complex, including the following:

  • Blog Commenting. If we’re all using course blogs, we can have each class read and comment on the posts of the other classes. This is the easiest assignment to implement and has the benefit of being asynchronous.
  • A Group Blog/Tumble Log. All of our students (which will likely add up to 50-60 students) join one massive group blog or tumble log for the three weeks that we’re reading House of Leaves. There’s some flexibility in how dialogic this group effort would be. Students could use Tumblr simply to post quotes and images related to the book, or we could have a full-fledged blog, with layers of comments.
  • Constructive Class projects. I suggested converting my mapping House of Leaves assignment into a studio-type project, in which one class presents two or three group projects to the other classes, and those classes “critique” them. This assignment requires more overhead than the other options, and involves a greater commitment from the students (versus commenting on blogs, where the stakes are lower).

In addition to these fairly predictable shared assignments, I’ve been thinking about a more radical one, which tackles head-on the challenge any teacher of House of Leaves faces: the forum. The House of Leave forum is a massive discussion board of tens of thousands of posts, ranging from the puerile to the brilliant. And, since this is House of Leaves, sometimes both at once. Nearly every puzzle, every ambiguity, every nuance of House of Leaves has had a discussion thread devoted to it. The forum is so overwhelming that it can easily suck the air out of a literary reading of House of Leaves. And, as Rita Raley noted in a message to Richard Grusin and myself, the forum has an unassailable authority about it:

@ @ It's been a few years since I last taught it; now one has to compete with the authority of The Forum.
@ritaraley
Rita Raley

Just as House of Leaves presents a paradox to the literary scholar, so too does the forum present a dilemma to the digital humanist. On one hand, the forum is a vast crowd-sourced literary interpretation, complete with user-generated concordances, digitizations, and transcriptions—all of the familiar tools of digital humanists. On the other hand, this work is produced by non-scholars. By fans. Amateurs. It’s not vetted in a way recognizable to most academics (though it’s foolish to believe that the forum does not have its own system of peer review and prestige ranking).

Different professors have different ways of dealing with the forum. Some ban their students from reading it outright. Others acknowledge the forum in an offhand way, hoping that their students never investigate for themselves the breadth and depth of the discussions. In either of these cases, I think the tiptoeing around the forum is due to pedagogical expediencies rather than a high-brow dismissal of low-brow work.

There is a third option, of course, which is to face the forum head-on and incorporate the discussion threads into the class (which certainly fits the networked reading strategy Pressman describes).

And now, I want to propose a fourth option.

Renetworking the Novel

Let’s bring the forum to the fore by starting it anew.

That is, I propose starting the forum from scratch. In our classes we’ll explicitly (and temporarily) forbid students from reading the House of Leave forum. Instead, we create an alternate forum of our own, seeded with a few initial threads that appeared in the original forum. The idea is to recreate the forum, and see how its trajectory would play out ten years later, in the context of a literature class. The 50-60 students from the five classes seems a manageable number to launch a new iteration of the forum; enough to generate a sense of “there” there, but not such an overwhelming number that keeping up with the forum becomes unmanageable (though that would in fact replicate the feel of the original forum).

After three weeks of intensive cross-class use of the renetworked forum, the final step would be to lift the ban on reading the official forum, giving students the opportunity to compare the alternate forum with the original, and draw some conclusions from that comparison.

The five of us haven’t decided yet what kind of shared assignment we’ll use. And my post here is not meant to sway anybody; it’s more of a thought experiment. What would happen if we truly renetworked an already networked novel? And do so using the same modes that made the novel networked in the first place? What would we learn? About House of Leaves? About networks? About crowdsourcing? About the blurry lines between academics and fans?

[Creative Commons photo credit: Simon Scott ]

  1. McCaffery, Larry, and Sinda Gregory. “Haunted House—An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewksi.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 44.2 (2003) : 106.
  2. Pressman, Jessica. “House of Leaves: Reading the Networked Novel.” Studies in American Fiction 34.1 (2006) : 107-128.

§ 10 Responses to Renetworking House of Leaves in the Digital Humanities"

  • zach whalen says:

    Something I have to keep reminding myself about the networked sense of House of Leaves is that its originary networked context is one from the late 90s. Notice how the “social network” implied in the inside cover blurb is primarily analog — and even the oft-repeated claim that a digital version of the book predated the print version is debatable.

    On the topic of re-networking, the forum has attempted this in its “House of Leaves Again” sub-forum. The idea never really gained much momentum, it seems, but it’s a start.

    Something else to consider, forum-wise: if we’re doing something networked, as a sort of MOOC, why not invite the forum regulars to join in as well?

    At the very least, I know a few of them would be interested to see what we’re doing, whether or not they’d be motivated to contribute.

  • [...] Very cool House of Leaves assignment that gives me hope for the “digital humanities”: That is, I propose starting the forum from scratch. In our classes we’ll explicitly (and [...]

  • Mark Sample says:

    Just a follow-up to this post….the five of us who are co-teaching House of Leaves across five campuses will indeed attempt the fourth assignment I suggest here: “rebooting” the forum.

    I’ll post more details about this experiment as they develop….

  • Douglas Eyman says:

    Another forum possibility: edit it as an archive, applying various standards of peer-review and different organizational principles that fit with the class projects/readings. Of course, the drawback is that you couldn’t do this publicly, given the IP issues it would raise (unless you get permission from the forum itself). But if you have this great resource, it would be interesting to see what a remix might get you.

    • Mark Sample says:

      Really cool idea, Doug. I think it might go beyond the scope at least of my own class, but it’s something that might fit with Brian’s class on digital humanities scholarship or Paul’s class on the archive.

  • [...] This is true in a general sense, though is not always applicable in the specific sense. Trolling comments, spam or the occasional crazy don’t add any real value or substance to the narrative. However, there are constructive comments, some addressing the post’s content directly, some replying because of a mention in a post, or just a conversation around the content. [...]

  • Alex Mueller says:

    I fortuitously stumbled across this discussion in the midst of preparing to teach HOL for the first time. I emphasize “first time” mostly because it has always seemed to be a fairly unteachable text to me, particularly for the reasons you cite. That said, I’m giving it a go in my grad seminar on “Teaching English with Technology” (an odd title, I know – how might one teach without it?) because I think it forces us to think carefully about our reading itineraries and how our textual experiences are always already mediated. I’ve enjoyed reading about how you are teaching this book and just thought I’d share on ongoing discussion that is occurring amongst my grad students here:

  • [...] and University of Virginia — perhaps mimicking the Looking for Whitman strategies or the House of Leaves networked experiment conducted last semester by Zach Whalen, Erin Templeton, Brian Croxall, Mark Sample, and Paul [...]

  • [...] tossed around a couple of ideas for assignments, but what we decided upon was a collaborative forum where the students would ask questions and [...]