No Questions: The Camera CAN Lie”
House of Leaves is a story made up of intricately interwoven layers, like a pile of leaves raked together on a crisp fall day. Each leaf might represent a different truth or lie. This is how complex reality is in the novel. Zampano’s story is littered with fake sources and quotes. Johnny is crazy, so can we trust him? Navidson’s story seems too incredible to be real. So what is reality? Who or what can we trust? These questions are intrinsically tied to authenticity, which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: “as being in accordance with fact, as being true in substance.” Today, we question the authenticity of the media. Is reality television really real? Are the images that appear in our newspapers or on the news actually from that event, that day? House of Leaves conveys these questions and fears. Through its complicated examination of reality, the novel considers the authenticity of visual technology.
First, it is important to note the design of the book. The mix-matched fonts, side-ways/upside-down text, colored words, cross-out lines, etc. reflect what is happening in the story and add to the layers of the narrative. They enhance its meaning. Also, there are no images in the novel (excluding Appendix III). This, and the fact that a book is pretty old school technology, bring the discussion back to a basic form in which we can focus more on what exactly the story is saying and how. The design eliminates distractions to focus on the authenticity of each statement.
Next, the novel opens with a quote about authenticity: “While enthusiasts and detractors will continue to empty entire dictionaries attempting to describe or deride it, ‘authenticity’ still remains the word most likely to stir a debate. In fact, this leading obsession - to validate or invalidate the reels and tapes - invariably brings up a collateral and more general concern: whether or not, with the advent of digital technology, image has forsaken its once unimpeachable hold on the truth” (Danielewski, 3). A while ago, images could not be edited. Although they might have faded, discolored, or smeared, images were generally trustworthy. Now, we can alter images beyond recognition; this leaves us wondering whether or not the model on the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated is photo shopped or if the dramatic sequence of events on last night’s episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians was cleverly cut. Obviously, not all images are authentic, so how do we distinguish between the truth and the lies?
Let us look at a more specific form of visual technology, documentaries. The Navidson Record is a documentary. Ironically, it is also fictional and on two levels: in the story itself and as a byproduct of the novel’s genre (i.e. layers). A documentary is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “factual, realistic; applied esp. to a film or literary work, etc., based on real events or circumstances, and intended primarily for instruction or record purposes.” Although Danielewski says that skeptics doubt the authenticity of this specific documentary, he also says that they admit its “exceptional quality” (3). Thus, we might want to consider whether or not quality affects our perception of truth. When we watch a documentary, we expect it to be educational, but, in a reality where the media sometimes fails us, we might question the authenticity of a documentary despite its visual appeal. Understanding Reality Television explains how our perception of the genre is changing:
Corner’s argument here is based on a number of perceived shifts in the space occupied by ‘factual’ programming on television, particularly the ‘radical dispersal’ of a documentary ‘look’ across programme forms and schedules, and, crucially, a foregrounding of the primary impetus to deliver entertainment (‘documentary as diversion’). As Corner explains, this has fostered the creation of a proliferating and much extended space for the production and consumption of ‘factual’ programming which problematises documentary’s (already contested) generic status…. (2)
The popularity of the documentary format in shows that are more focused on entertainment than education starts to discredit documentaries’ authenticity and trustworthiness. When we blend visual technology based on reality with that based on entertainment, fact and fiction begin to blur. Therefore, where do we draw the line? Have we crossed it?
The Navidson Record documentary illustrates the strange experiences that Navidson and his family have in the house on Ash Tree Lane - the mysterious closet that appears between the bedrooms, and the subsequent discovery of the minute but definite difference in dimensions of the inside and outside of the house, the expansion of the bookshelves Karen builds, and, of course, the freaky hallway that shows up in the living room. All of these unusual occurrences can be seen on tape, and because it is labeled a documentary they are suggested to be real. However, the authenticity of these images comes into question through the leafy layers of inconsistent narrative. Navidson is a credible, award-winning photographer, but Zampano quotes fake sources. Johnny recognizes Zampano’s made up material, but he himself fabricates stories. For example, “^216 As you probably guessed, not only has Ken Burns never made any such comment, he’s also never heard of The Navidson Record let alone Zampano” (Danielewski, 206). These contradictions make it much more complicated to reason what is truth and what is lie in the story.
In parallel, when we look at an image from a reputable source, but know that this source has photo shopped images or reused video footage, how can we trust the media’s authenticity? At the bottom of 139 Danielewski introduces cinema verite, “…a practical working method based upon a faith of unmanipulated reality, a refusal to tamper with life as it presents itself.” In this aspect, “The filmmaker attempts to eliminate as much as possible the barriers between subject and audience” (Danielewski, 139). It is argued that this method is used by Navidson in his documentary, therefore implying truth to the work. Thus, here we might think that Danielewski is arguing in favor of the authenticity of the media. However, a few pages later he suggests:
“In the future, readers of newspapers and magazines will probably view news pictures more as illustrations than as reportage, since they will be well aware that they can no longer distinguish between a genuine image and one that has been manipulated. Even if news photographers and editors resist the temptations of electronic manipulation, as they are likely to do, the credibility of all reproduced images will be diminished by a climate of reduced expectations. In short, photographs will not seem as real as they once did” ^184 Andy Grundberg, ‘Ask It No Questions: The Camera Can Lie,’ The New York Times, August 12, 1990, Section 2, 1, 29. All of which reiterates in many ways what Marshall McLuhan already anticipated when he wrote: “To say ‘the camera cannot lie’ is merely to underline the multiple deceits that are now practiced in its name.” (141)
Although we have not reached the future he speaks of just yet, we are progressing towards it. For example, a real life instance was when Fox News reused film footage from an event two months previous to suggest that more people were at a rally than there actually were. Jon Stewart pointed out their lie on The Daily Show by demonstrating a side-by-side of the footage shown on two different dates, claiming to be of two different events. Fox News later admitted that they reused the footage, stating that it was an accident. Whether a careless mistake or intentional, Fox News revealed the ability of their coverage to be inauthentic, and consequentially, make us question the trustworthiness of each and every visual technology they show.
In addition to the documentary, an important image to the story is Navidson’s photograph of Delial. It could be argued that the entire story pivots around this photograph. Also, because it exists in real life, the photograph presents yet another layer of reality. It is illustrated as, “…the renowned image shows a Sudanese child dying of starvation, too weak to move even though a vulture stalks her from behind” (Danielewski, 368). The footnote explains that Navidson’s award-winning photo is based off of Kevin Carter’s 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph depicting the same image. Its controversial story complicates further whether or not we can trust reality. Many criticized Carter (and in the novel Navidson) of being no better than the vulture in the picture. Perhaps he should have done more to help the child, but his photograph was a revelation of the truth, horrible or not. Moreover, if we are to believe Navidson’s version of the story, he only took one photo. This supports the truth of the photograph by eliminating the photographer’s attempt to manipulate the scene by pointedly positioning his or her shot. It makes it authentic.
Much of Marcuse's discussion in One-Dimensional Man surrounds technology. Like Danielewski, he expresses that there are both pros and cons to it. He also emphasizes truths and untruths. In chapter 5, Marcuse begins to discuss discerning the truth, “‘…that which is cannot be true.’ To our well-trained ears and eyes, this statement is flippant and ridiculous, or as outrageous as that other statement which seems to say the opposite: “what is real is rational.”…both express the same concept, namely, the antagonistic structure of reality, and of thought trying to understand reality” (123). Here Marcuse demonstrates the twisted way in which we try to figure out truth. This is similar to Danielewski's more specific attempt to discover whether visual technology can be authentic anymore.
Marcuse probably would have liked Danielewski. One of the main issues he saw with society was its unconsciousness and the difficulty of attempting to form a critique of a certain way of life from within that way of life. He says, “But it is natural only to a mode of thought and behavior which is unwilling and perhaps even incapable of comprehending what is happening and why it is happening, a mode of thought and behavior which is immune against any other than the established rationality” (Marcuse, 145). Danielewski's novel does exactly what Marcuse says it is so difficult to do. It is conscious of and questions truth. Furthermore, it offers multiple perspectives of a complicated discussion about the authenticity of visual technology, which according to Marcuse is an important step in remedying society (i.e. multi-dimensional ways of thinking).
Thus, authenticity is revealed or kept hidden through individual perspective. I am not talking about opinion. I am talking about vantage point. Refer back to the Fox News example. If I watch the footage, and then Jon Stewart’s revelation, I will see that Fox News lied. However, if I never see or hear about John Stewart’s video, I will trust the footage. When, where, why, and how we view something – context – determines our trust in it. House of Leaves explains this concept:
[M]aze-treaders, whose vision ahead and behind is severely constricted and fragmented, suffer confusion, whereas maze-viewers who see the pattern whole, from above or in a diagram, are dazzled by its complex artistry. What you see depends on where you stand, and thus, at one and the same time, labyrinths are single (there is one physical structure) and double: they simultaneously incorporate order and disorder, clarity and confusion, unity and multiplicity, artistry and chaos. They may be perceived as a path (a linear but circuitous passage to a goal) or as a pattern (a complete symmetrical design)…Our perception of labyrinths is thus intrinsically unstable: change your perspective and the labyrinth seems to change. 114
This is an example of why Marcuse might have liked Danielewski. Being simultaneously single and double, labyrinths reflect Marcuse’s ideal multi-dimensional society. Our multiple vantage points allow us to reveal a visual technology’s authenticity.
You might have noticed I ask a lot of questions in this essay. You might have wondered why. By questioning the layers of narrative in House of Leaves we can reveal the authenticity (or lack of) of the documentary, which is suggestive of a larger issue in society – namely the authenticity of visual technology. According to Plato, asking questions is the best method for reaching the truth. His idea of dialectic used questioning and discussion to lead students to higher understanding. Marcuse agrees that questioning in an important part of being able to think multi-dimensionally. Perhaps, first we need to be aware of and question visual technology's ability to be inauthentic in order to be able to determine whether or not it actually is.
Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000.
Holmes, Su, and Deborah Jermyn, eds. Understanding Reality Television. Psychology
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. New York: Beacon, 1991.
“Sean Hannity Confesses Using Fake Footage: ‘Jon Stewart Was Right!’” YouTube.
YouTube, 12 Nov. 2009. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JS1NWYV1i_E>.