Thursday, April 11, 2013

“Defining and Using the Unexplainable: Investigating Scientific Control through the Hallway in House of Leaves.” – Taylor Hochuli: Blog Essay #8, Prompt #1

                Is it wise to try and explain the unexplainable? It seems paradoxical, but this thinking has led to scientific revolutions. Gravity was once unexplainable, but has now been mastered by Newton’s physics and Einstein’s General Relativity. The arrangements of the night sky were once unexplainable (except in myth), but were conquered by astronomers who began the massive task of mapping the universe. This mastery of nature by science has made production skyrocket and advanced civilization to the technological universe of today. However, Herbert Marcuse points out that this mastery of nature has also been turned into a way of domination. Natural things are now seen as just tools for production and are completely broken down by science just to be used. Such ideas are projected onto a mysterious hallway that appears in Will Navidson’s house in the book House of Leaves. Upon its discovery, both Will and his colleagues try to classify and explain this phenomenon with no success. Even during this attempted classification, the characters each look to use the hose for their own aims, just as predicted by Marcuse. The classification and domination of Nature described by Marcuse is directly reflected by the treatment of the mysterious hallway by Navidson, Holloway, and others commenting on the footage.

                Natural objects such as coal and oil used to be just defined as interesting geological items, but are now simply seen as fuel sources. The conquering of nature makes all things defined by their “potential instrumentality.” (Marcuse 1964) Marcuse argues that science is now centralized about operationalism rather than more transcendent goals (Marcuse 1964). From the very appearance of the hallway in the Navidson Record, it is used by the characters for their own goals. Will Navidson begins his filming project of settling down with his family in a house in Virginia to become more acquainted with his family. This decision comes based on an ultimatum by Will Navidson’s partner, Karen, who wants him to give up risking his life for his career as a photographer. Once the doorway appears, Navidson simply uses it to continue his risky travels and defy Karen’s insistence that he settle down with his family. This becomes evident since Navidson directly goes against Karen’s request for him to not go into the hallway by going off to film Exploration A. This occurs again when Holloway finds the staircase in the great hall, seeing Navidson angrily pass off the radio to Reston as he is angry that “he has been deprived of the right to name what he inherently understands as his own” (pg. 85, Danielewski 2000). When Navidson goes into the hallway after Holloway, he is described as being, “joyful, even euphoric” after sulking at the transmissions of Holloway (pg. 153, Danielewski 2000). Navidson does not view the hallway as a threat and does not theorize about it, he just wants to use it in order to get out his adventurous impulses.

When the explorer Holloway encounters the hallway, he sees his claim to fame much like Navidson. He approaches the house as a “conquistador landing on new shores” intending to dominate and control whatever lies inside (pg. 80, Danielewski 2000). He seeks to make a mark on history through this discovery and exploration, and will do anything to achieve that goal. This is shown when Holloway nearly cuts his line to the outside world in Exploration #1 to proceed further into the house, not being satisfied with just the Great Hall that Navidson has also discovered (pg. 84, Danielewski 2000). During the fourth expedition, Holloway takes the growling noise in the space to be a sign that there is a “definitive creature, thus providing him with something concrete to pursue” (pg. 124, Danielewski 200). Ultimately, upon not finding anything, Holloway goes crazy and attacks him team as well as Navidson and Reston when they try to rescue Wax and Jed. The nature of Holloway up to his suicide in the infinite hallway shows how he was trying to just use the hallway. Rather than just accepting the fact that his explorations were historical, Holloway wants something significant to be in the hallway. If he overlooks something that is later discovered, he will lose claim to it and that is not acceptable. Holloway sees this expedition allowing his, “company [to] thrive, to say nothing of the reputations” of his team (pg. 91, Danielewski 2000). He simply uses the explorations as a means to an end rather than reveling in the chance to explore this physics defying space.

Not only is this natural (or rather supernatural) hallway simply used by these characters, it is also the subject for relentless scientific classification. Marcuse explains that part of technological domination includes a classification of things through science. This “universal quantifiablility” is used to keep people within a certain line of thought and not consider what objects are beyond their definition (Marcuse 1964). In order to achieve this, everything in the universe is given a “measurable quantity” and intensely classified to create the illusion of complete control (Marcuse 1964). The hallway becomes the object of classification in many ways throughout the book House of Leaves. Preceding the hallways appearance, the house also creates a room one day when Navidson and his family returns home from a trip. This room is confusing and cannot be explained, so Will and Karen take the, “most rational course: they acquire the architectural blueprints” (pg. 29, Danielewski 2000). This is rational because the blueprint outlines the architecture that is organized and quantifiable. Later, there is a discrepancy from the measurement of the room on the inside of the house from the outside of the house. Extensive measures are then taken by Will, Tom, and Reston in order to correct this measurement since it is not quantifiable. The book explains that this is a riddle that cannot be solved and since science has determined that the measurements must be equal (pg. 33, Danielewski 2000). This shows the characters attempts to control this unnatural development because it must be quantifiable by our society’s standards.

Later in the book where Holloway is on his fourth exploration of the hallway, writer Zampanó points out that there are no architectural elements that define the hallway and there is “not one object, let alone fixture or other manner of finish work” (pg. 119, Danielewski 2000). This spurs on lists and lists of both architectural configurations and fixtures that we are acquainted with, but do not apply to the house. Zampanó discusses Palladian grammar and its attempt to “organize space through a series of strict rules” (pg. 120, Danielewski 2000). This organization does not apply to the hallway, but both the system and examples of architecture point out how science has turned space into a highly classified object. The hallway is so foreign because it resists the classification of either objects or architecture that society requires us to comprehend. Without the immediate ability to classify the hallway, the explorers are made to question the very existence of the hallway itself and break the technological control of scientific organization. This attempt to classify the hallway also reappears when Karen shows a tape of the hallway to Architect and Structural Engineer Jennifer Antipala whose job it is to classify these sorts of spaces. Karen is searching for meaning in the house, but Jennifer directly says that her questions about the architecture are “not exactly concerned with the meaning” of the hallway (pg. 355, Danielewski 2000). She goes on to try and hypothesize about the house’s soil bearing capacity, gravity, and load-bearing capacity of the walls. This treatment of a meaningful object in a strictly scientific way shows how this need to classify everything makes people like Jennifer skip over the meaning of anything in favor of making the object conform to science. Such lack of meaning is found by Will and Holloway since they seek to classify the hallway as well, skipping over the meaning of the hallway for just its use.

Works Cited
Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Print.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Is it really true that n. doesn't see the hallway as a threat? Rather, he is euphoric precisely because it is a threat: he lives for risk. This is a mind point, though.

I have two more major things to note. First, your analysis of the house's rejection of all quantification seems fundamentally good and important - a thoughtful and compelling way to bring hol and Marcuse together.

Second, you spend maybe too much effort on extensive summaries, and not quite enough on asking what the rejection of quantification ultimately means or why it matters.