Thursday, April 5, 2012

Project Proposal: Blog #8

Caia Caldwell

Narrative Project Proposal

Proposed Argument & Role of Marcuse

House of Leaves is a two dimensional book. It may have been written and produced in a one-dimensional society, but it has moved beyond the boundaries of one dimension. If we define the one-dimensional society as trying to “eliminate negativity, critique, and the ability for critical thinking” Danielewski’s novel is the exact opposite. The book is two dimensional in the way it negatively critiques the status quo by the use of art, language, and lack of technological rationality.


House of Leaves is not just a book. It is art. It may not have paintings, or illustrations drawn inside, but the way the book is formatted moves beyond the boundary of simply classifying it as a novel.

For example, take pages 202 to 203. A third of the way down the page, part of a sentence is stretched out over the manila span of two pages, drawing the reader’s eye to the interesting formatting. In other pages, boxes with text appear, and disappear without notice. If these aberrations were without purpose, perhaps we could dismiss them as an author’s eccentric whims. But this formatting, this art, has a message. The reader gains insight not only from the words being read, but how those words are displayed. Formatting also includes the various types of font being used for the different speakers, the text color, and the extensive footnotes that give reader’s clues on how to interpret the story.

There is a specific category that defines something as ‘art’ or not—if we examine the subject using Marcuse. Herbert Marcuse identifies specific things as ‘art’ and this, I will argue, would include House of Leaves. Every painting, every play, every photograph is not art. For Marcuse, art is a “Great Refusal” of what society has accepted. For my essay, I want to examine why House of Leaves is art using Marcuse’s definition.


Careful attention is paid to what words are used in House of Leaves. The author even pauses the narrative to have continued talks about the meanings of certain words, and the choice that was made to use them, instead of an alternative one. An example of this the word “outpost.” Navidson initially uses this word on pg. 9 to describe the family’s new house in Virginia, but a sustained discussion of why the word “outpost” and not another word, is conducted on pg. 23. Again, we see this with the word “echo.” The history and deeper meanings of words are researched and presented to the reader. This ties in directly with Marcuse because he as well was concerned with the lack of knowledge about the history of language. People generally just use language to quickly communicate a point, and rarely stop to examine the deeper meaning.

Technological Rationality

There is also an issue of “technological rationality” to be explored here under the category of art that Marcuse rails against. For example, we now have the technology to format extensive footnotes. Most authors, rationally, use this as a resource to give credit to other academic sources they have drawn from. Danielewski uses these footnotes to not only mock academia, but as an interesting way of presenting information to the reader. There is no ‘real’ need for the footnotes. Many of the works cited are fictional. The footnotes are just another form of art. Danielewski is refusing to abide by how books are normally formatted, and uses technology for a purpose it was not intended for—another protest of the status quo.

Why Should We Care?

The formatting of House of Leaves is different from traditional books, generally leaving a lasting impression on the reader. (When was the last time you read a book with over four different fonts and text going different directions all over the pages? With ancient history mixed in with multiple narratives? Probably not recently). An examination of why this novel is two dimensional will dissect the very aspects of the book that make it so interesting to the reader, and provide an interpretation through Marcuse. We should care because this book is different. It challenges the idea of what a novel has to be. It challenges the idea that technology must be used in a certain, rational way.

Is this a Revision?

In simple terms, yes, this is a revision. I have written about Marcuse, art, and the Great Refusal twice before in a blog essay, and in a revision. However, both times I analyzed different work, and I have not looked at House of Leaves in relation to this subject. I might pull a couple sentences from the revision I wrote on Jimmy Corrigan and Marcuse, but I can’t imagine having more than a page of old material. In this final essay I want to take it a step further, and explain not only how House of Leaves embodies the Great Refusal, but how the book itself is two dimensional by looking at these three different aspects.


I plan to write a traditional essay, except for perhaps a few changes in formatting. For example, if I want to express how House of Leaves achieves a certain feeling or double meaning by using a specific format, I might do something like this to demonstrate:

Each word has specific emphasis .

But, besides that, it should be a standard essay.


1Abromeit, John and W. Mark Cobb. Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader. New York:

Routledge, 2004. Print.

2Miles, Malcolm. Herbert Marcuse: An Aesthetics of Liberation. London: Pluto Press,

2012. Print.

3"Marcuse, Herbert." Germany and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History. Santa

Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005. Credo Reference. Web. 03 April 2012.

1This author covers a wide variety of subjects Marcuse addresses. However, I find many of the topics covered relevant, and there is a lot of material to pull from. Here are a couple quotes:

“In addition, Marcuse advocated the preservation and recovery of the critically transcendent dimension of language, found in universal philosophical concepts or poetry, against the dominant tendency to subordinate language to operational imperatives” (pg. 12).

“Marcuse distinguishes sharply between the products of the culture industry…and autonomous works of art, whose commitment to aesthetic form lets the bad immediacy of the status quo appear in an entirely different light” (pg. 21).

“Marcuse insisted that art has not only an important cognitive function in sharpening people’s critical understanding of society, but that is also has the potential to change people’s needs and thus their conduct” (pg. 22).

2The author of this book has some great interpretations of how Marcuse views art. There is a chapter dedicated to “Society as a Work of Art” and I have already found some great quotes. Here are a couple:

“Marcuse attaches particular importance to art in the exposure of contradictions in the dominant society, and as a vehicle for radical imagination” (pg. 102).

“As a product of the imagination it is semblance, but the possible truth and reality to come appear in this semblance and art is able to shatter the false reality of the status quo” (pg. 103).

3This is basically an encyclopedia entry that gives background on Marcuse and his many works, but I included it in the bibliography because it gave a great definition of a one-dimensional society. It takes Marcuse an entire book to mediate on this idea, but sometimes it is useful to have a complex idea summed up in a concise sentence from a reliable source. Even if I do not choose to quote this, I still think it helped my understanding of Marcuse.

“Mass media and culture, advertising, industrial management, and contemporary modes of thought all reproduced the existing system and attempted to eliminate negativity, critique, and opposition. The result was a ‘one-dimensional’ universe of thought and behavior in which the very aptitude and ability for critical thinking and oppositional behavior was withering away.”


RJ said...

This is a good project and I think you have done a lot of preliminary work already to bring together HoL and Marcuse. One specific thing is that your use of the word "art" at the beginning is kind of ambiguous, because you seem to be using the 'ordinary' definition of art ("not just a book [...] may not have paintings inside" etc. which suggests you tie art completely to visual art, when I might consider something that's 'just a book' to be art anyway) as well as acknowledging that what you're really doing is trying to tie it to the Marcusian definition of art. So I'd try to separate out that kind of background / colloquial assumption that ART always = "visual art" (esp. paintings) in order to clearly talk about the fact that it's meaningful or important that HoL is "art."

Adam said...

Like Richard, I liked this (it's a worthy development on interesting work you've been doing). Also like Richard, your use of "art" seemed like the most obvious problem, although it's not a huge one.

I think you're using "art" to indicated "what Marcuse means by art" as well as to indicate that Danielewski is doing things visually as well as in the prose. So far, so good, although there's a risk of confusion or incomprehension.

There's also an opportunity. I think what you're arguing is that Danielewksi becomes two-dimension in Marcuse's sense - successfully engages in the "Great Refusal" because he escapes the problems of functional/positive/everyday language through the visisual element he inorporates.

In other words, I think that the apparent ambiguity is just a part of a your idea that you're struggling to articulate.

That's my point of view, anyway. Whether I'm right or not, clearly your challenge is to demonstrate how and why D. is able to incorporate a 2nd dimension of thought, and what that accomplishes.