Renetworking House of Leaves in the Digital Humanities

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.

The truth behind Jay Murray Siskind’s review of David Foster Wallace

And finally, the wink and nod I’ve been looking for. Laurence Rainey, the editor of Modernism/Modernity, and Nicole Devarenne, the former managing editor of Modernism/Modernity, sent me this open letter today:

An Open Letter to Mark Sample,

We appreciate your recent remarks concerning a review essay about David Foster Wallace, one that appeared in late 2004 in the pages of Modernism/Modernity and was assigned to one Jay Murray Siskind, also the name of a character in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. It is saddening indeed to see the review being cited with po-faced earnestness, and surely you are right that this turns “a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.” All too plainly, the time has come to set the record straight.

As the journal’s book review editors at the time, we were at first disconcerted to receive an email from Jay Murray Siskind. Our suspicions were heightened when we noted that his email address read “blacksmith.edu,” rather than the better known College-on-the-Hill, where Murray was last seen working. But research soon revealed that his change in academic affiliation was the result of a bitter tenure decision fight, in which Alfonse Stompanato had played an especially unsavoury role. Still, Murray’s homepage is available to anyone who wishes to imagine it. And his competence in popular culture is amply documented by his essays in publications such as the American Transvestite and Ufology, not to mention Brüno. Who were we to reject the offer of a review from a respected and even popular colleague?  Who but a fictional character could be better qualified to review . . . well, new fiction? Isn’t that the very essence of peer reviewing? It should also have come as no surprise to anyone that Jay Murray Siskind’s writing should have sounded like Jay Murray Siskind’s writing, in much the same way we might expect that the writing of Pierre Menard, author of the Quijote, to sound much like Don Quijote. Of course we took seriously our role as editors. We toned down a fawning reference (“the most important study since Das Kapital”) to the book that Murray co-authored with J.A.K. Gladney, Adolph and Elvis: Two Twentieth-Century Men and Their Mothers. We also removed a plainly vengeful mention of Alphonse Stompanato’s book, Crunching Granola: The Semiotics of the Cereal Box (“drivel that positively drivels”). But apart from that, the essay stands as Murray wrote it–perhaps the impish product of an impish mood that relieved the tedium of editing the turgid, academic prose that appears in Ufology, where he serves on the Advisory Board.

Yes, we agree that further investigation is urgently required to clarify the entire affair. Perhaps help can be sought from Daniel Quinn, the noted employee of the Auster Detective Agency. If so, he should get to work, or Max Work, immediately. If not, the affair will remain shrouded in a cloud of unknowing.

Finally, in one of the posts to your piece, you highlighted “the fact that Modernism/Modernity doesn’t concern itself with someone like Wallace.” Alas, M/M was the first academic journal anywhere to publish an extended tribute to Wallace after his untimely death, which included pieces by Dave Eggers, Michael North, and Marshall Boswell. (See Modernism/Modernity 16.1, January 2009: 1-24.) The alleged rupture between modernism and postmodernism is one urged only by the simple-, not to be confused with the Sample-, minded.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence Rainey, Editor of Modernism/Modernity

Nicole Devarenne, former Managing Editor of Modernism/Modernity

And here is a copy of the actual letter:

[scribd id=17482549 key=key-1u543771oh25lc02uw0a]

Obviously, then, the whole review was written with — and continues to generate — a sense of humor, something that is sadly lacking from most academic publishing venues. “Hoax” was probably too strong of a word to use to describe the bogus review — until, that is, inexpert readers began taking it seriously.

Here is my response to Professor Rainey:

Dear Professor Rainey,

I appreciate the insider’s perspective, as well as the full details of Siskind’s rocky tenure process. I had heard Stompanato was difficult to work with, but I had no idea. And of course, I’m pleased to see Siskind branching out beyond the stagnant confines of Ufology. When Siskind left Manhattan for College-on-the-Hill, we lost a wonderful sportswriter, but gained a marvelous intellect. And his beard. What an incredibly important beard.

All the best,

Mark Sample

I have to rethink my characterization of the journal as an inscrutable monolith (I just love the phrase, though). In the meantime, if we can only get unsuspecting undergraduate and graduate students to distinguish between serious scholarly conversations and playful ones. (Or even better, is there a way that we can all learn better to mix the two, and use both at once?)

An Open Letter to Mark Sample,

We appreciate your recent remarks concerning a review essay about David Foster Wallace, one that appeared in late 2004 in the pages of Modernism/Modernity and was assigned to one Jay Murray Siskind, also the name of a character in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. It is saddening indeed to see the review being cited with po-faced earnestness, and surely you are right that this turns “a fun fake review into something much more telling about the state of academia.” All too plainly, the time has come to set the record straight.

As the journal’s book review editors at the time, we were at first disconcerted to receive an email from Jay Murray Siskind. Our suspicions were heightened when we noted that his email address read “blacksmith.edu,” rather than the better known College-on-the-Hill, where Murray was last seen working. But research soon revealed that his change in academic affiliation was the result of a bitter tenure decision fight, in which Alfonse Stompanato had played an especially unsavoury role. Still, Murray’s homepage is available to anyone who wishes to imagine it. And his competence in popular culture is amply documented by his essays in publications such as the American Transvestite and Ufology, not to mention Brüno. Who were we to reject the offer of a review from a respected and even popular colleague? Who but a fictional character could be better qualified to review . . . well, new fiction? Isn’t that the very essence of peer reviewing? It should also have come as no surprise to anyone that Jay Murray Siskind’s writing should have sounded like Jay Murray Siskind’s writing, in much the same way we might expect that the writing of Pierre Menard, author of the Quijote, to sound much like Don Quijote. Of course we took seriously our role as editors. We toned down a fawning reference (“the most important study since Das Kapital”) to the book that Murray co-authored with J.A.K. Gladney, Adolph and Elvis: Two Twentieth-Century Men and Their Mothers. We also removed a plainly vengeful mention of Alphonse Stompanato’s book, Crunching Granola: The Semiotics of the Cereal Box (“drivel that positively drivels”). But apart from that, the essay stands as Murray wrote it–perhaps the impish product of an impish mood that relieved the tedium of editing the turgid, academic prose that appears in Ufology, where he serves on the Advisory Board.

Yes, we agree that further investigation is urgently required to clarify the entire affair. Perhaps help can be sought from Daniel Quinn, the noted employee of the Auster Detective Agency. If so, he should get to work, or Max Work, immediately. If not, the affair will remain shrouded in a cloud of unknowing.

Finally, in one of the posts to your piece, you highlighted “the fact that Modernism/Modernity doesn’t concern itself with someone like Wallace.” Alas, M/M was the first academic journal anywhere to publish an extended tribute to Wallace after his untimely death, which included pieces by Dave Eggers, Michael North, and Marshall Boswell. (See Modernism/Modernity 16.1, January 2009: 1-24.) The alleged rupture between modernism and postmodernism is one urged only by the simple-, not to be confused with the Sample-, minded.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence Rainey, Editor of Modernism/Modernity

Nicole Devarenne, former Managing Editor of Modernism/Modernity

Reading Lists for Fall 2008

My course descriptions for Fall 2008 have been up for a while, but here are the specific reading lists for both classes (cross-posted from my official university site):

Reading List for ENGL 343 – Textual Media

Reading List for HNRS 414:003 – American Postmodernism