Thursday, April 3, 2014

Theory - "Ask It No Questions: The Camera Can Lie"

"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).

With this opening statement from Chapter I, Danielewski asks a huge question: can we trust technology? More specifically, he asks if we can trust images (e.g. photographs and videos) that are supposed to be real and genuine when they are artificially produced and edited. The Navidson Record is labeled a documentary. 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 the documentary, he also says that they admit its "exceptional quality" (3). Through the examination of The Navidson Record by Zampano and Johnny, Danielewski seeks to discover an answer, or at least guidance, to his important opening question.

He begins to discuss the trustworthiness of visual technology by illustrating 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 are both lowered and elevated by Navidson's credibility. On one hand, he is a gifted photographer who could easily manipulate and edit the images to appear genuine. On the other hand, he is a gifted photographer who, if anyone, could easily capture these seemingly impossible events on camera. The truth of the house's "condition" is further complicated by the experts that appear in Navidson's documentary, at first as skeptics and then validators. In addition, Johnny's narrative serves to express the ridiculousness of Zampano's description of The Navidson Record, which might be considered a vote of "no" when asking whether or not we can trust visual technology. Nevertheless, Johnny's own experiences with whatever dark creature seems to be stalking or haunting him invalidates the rationality that Zampano's story cannot possibly be true. The conflicting rationales that Danielewski presents parallel the complexity of the trustworthiness of technology.

Much of Marcuse's discussion in One-Dimensional Man surrounds technology as well. 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 trusted.

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).

On pages 139 to 149, Danielewski specifically addresses the ways in which The Navidson Record and visual technology in general are both validated and invalidated. First, he discusses the differences between Hollywood films and documentaries, most importantly the higher sophistication and expensiveness of the techniques and budget used by the former. He says of documentaries, "Audiences are not allowed the safety net of disbelief and so must turn to more challenging mechanisms of interpretation which, as is sometimes the case, may lead to denial and aversion" (Danielewski, 139). Notice that he doesn't say their lies are revealed. He says "denial and aversion", which suggests that people are wrong in disbelieving. At the bottom of 139 he introduces cinema verite, "…a practical working method based upon a faith of unmanipulated reality, a refusal to tamper with life as it presents itself"(Danielewski, 139). 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. The authenticity of The Navidson Record is further exemplified by the budget of the film: "They just never had enough money" (Danielewski, 148). The discussions on these pages are mostly justifications of the truth of the documentary, but they are also an example of how Navidson examines in detail the many different arguments for and against digital technology's trustworthiness.

I want desperately to believe in The Navidson Record despite knowing it is a fictional documentary in a fictional novel. However if the film and the book were non-fiction, I would still maintain an ounce of doubt at their authenticity because of my knowledge about editing and manipulation of digital technology. Perhaps, it is not about answering Navidson's huge opening question, but about being aware of visual technology's ability to be untruthful that is important.

Works Cited
Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. New York: Beacon, 1991.


Becca Garges said...

I'm thinking of revising/expanding this post for my Final Project. Do you think it could work?

Courtney Elvin said...


Your essay definitely made me reexamine parts of House of Leaves in the context of your argument concerning the truth in increasingly digital mediums. I think you chose very poignant quotes to open up the issue presented throughout the novel. I almost feel like you could look for a more diverse set of quotes (perspective-wise) to support your idea. Most of your quotes are from Navidson/Zampano/quoted source in the manuscript, but I think it would be useful to get Johnny’s perspective if possible (or even the mysterious editor), especially since that is something you bring up in your introduction/thesis.

The entire book is a layered narrative, and it might be wise to first address the point that the documentary is fake, maybe through analysis of Johnny’s introduction. How does this contribute to the discussion of truth in different mediums? Zampano wrote it all down physically, but it’s still false (we think), analog means can be false too? Even though that’s something that is known from reading the introduction from book, not addressing it would be a gap in a larger expansion of this essay, should you choose to revise.

Your connections to Marcuse are good, and are chosen well. It is a good discussion on complacency in society with respect to seeking truth. I especially like your paragraph explaining what Marcuse would think of Danielewski’s work! Very insightful and creative! This is something that would be worth expanding and an interesting angle to approach the issue from in a more in-depth way in a revision! One minor thing to look out for, when you get near the end of the essay, all of the “he”s you are referring to (Marcuse, Danielewski, Navidson, Zampano, or Johnny) get a little confusing within your sentence structure. It’s not unreadable by any means, but that’s something worth rereading for clarity’s sake.

Overall, I really like that analysis you have included already, and very relevant quotes and connections throughout the essay. I do get the impression that your argument strays from your original question by the end a bit. A clearer, more focused thesis may help alleviate some of this confusion, maybe to focus more on the search for truth in a Marcusian sense and how that is accomplished in House of Leaves? You hardly analyze the complexity between the layers of Zampano and Johnny’s narration (which is what your introduction led me to believe would be discussed), and even the focus on technology as a medium is a little scattered. This is an incredibly complex topic, and I do think you have abundant material to analyze, but a more focused assertion to answer the question would be beneficial. Also, if you wanted to use this material for a final project, it would be necessary to include some of your own readings of the meanings of these quotes and connections, delve deeper into the “why?” of it all. There is definitely material here for a final project, and I think you have a good handle on it if you choose! Best of luck!

Adam said...

While your first full paragraph doesn't have a true thesis, you are raising complex questions in a complex way - I'd love to see it boiled down into a thesis, but there's a lot of merit in what you're doing, too.

The 2nd paragraph is a little long for what it does, but your main point (that the "documentary" despite its lack of "authenticity" remains highly effective, maybe more so than it would be if it was more authentic) is good.

I think your instincts are very good, when you bring together Marcuse's interest in truth with Danielewski's interest in truth. There's a lot to be done there, and many ways to do it. I'd probably try to connect them through Heidegger (Danielewski has an extended and important citation of Heidegger near the start; Marcuse was Heidegger's rebellious student), but maybe that just says that I like pain. My point isn't that you should do it my way - my point is that you need to move from establishing a broad similarity between Marcuse and Danielewski to making a specific argument which - for example - makes a claim about Danielewski using Marcuse.

"Marcuse probably would have liked Danielewski." - My one comment on this paragraph is that you need to find more particular ways of connecting them. As to where and how, you might follow your instincts. For instance, one thing I'd do is zero in on the minotaur (as a way of approaching truths which simultaneously must and cannot be spoken) as compared to the problem of one-dimensional thought (which cannot be transcendental, although it needs to be transcendental). To put it another way: you might be arguing something along the lines that there are transcendental truths (Marcuse-style) which Danielewski is articulating through his art. But what are they, and how does he present them?

Overall: I think there's a lot that you could do here with a final project. Here's my interpretation of what you're doing: you recognize that both D. and M. are interested in the complex web of relationships among "truth," "facts," and "technology." For instance, our technologies (according to the opening quote from Zampano) first strengthened and then destroyed the relationship between truth and representation. So you're operating in a good area, and I think you know more or less what your interests are. The trick is to find a strong enough focus. How? You need to find a starting point - a particular place in Marcuse or Danielewski (or better yet - maybe a particular pair of passages which connect them). You're more than capable of that, but finding the right focus and then forcing yourself to stick to it will be the challenge.