Monday, June 29, 2009

Interpreting Foucault's Author Function through "House of Leaves"

House of Leaves1 is a novel that constantly reminds us it is being written, and, further, constantly reminding us of “who” is doing the writing. It presents a document called “The Navidson Record,” a critical commentary on a documentary film with the same title, which we are told was written by Zampanò. This Zampanò has died, and the manuscript was found by a fellow named Johnny Truant, who includes his own introduction and notes—which are mainly concerned with his inability to finish reading/stop being obsessed with the book. A final level of mediation is that of “the Editors,” who make occasional comments in a neutral tone. The limit point of the mediation—the essential story that we are being told—is that of the Navidson family, the characters in the “documentary” made by the family’s patriarch who move into a new house and find that it is infinitely larger inside than outside. But there are three authorial mediators between that story and us. 

Foucault begins and ends his discussion of the author function, “What is an Author?,” by quoting Beckett: “What does it matter who is speaking?” (Foucault 101) Considering the proliferation of names authorizing portions of the text in House of Leaves, we are evidently meant to consider this question in relation to it. The title page is traditionally where one would go to find author information. The one in this book is spread across two pages, pgs. ii-iii. Pg. ii has the words “Mark Z. Danielewski’s” and nothing else. The following page features the information “House of Leaves by Zampanò with introduction and notes by Johnny Truant.” (Danielewski, iii) The author’s identity has become multiple before we’ve even entered the book. This multiplicity of voices serves to constantly make us consider “who is speaking” as we’re reading. 

House of Leaves differs from a conventional novel with multiple first-person narrators in the way it attempts to have its fictions intrude on “our reality.” As I Lay Dying, for instance, is credited to William Faulkner; its title page doesn’t read “by Darl, with additional material by Dewey Dell, Vardaman, et al.” Additionally, the various styles in House of Leaves aren’t meant to replicate voices but texts; but this differs still from a classic epistolary novel. In, say, Dracula, the collection of letters, journal entries, and newspaper clippings are all presented on the same level of fictional discourse. But the texts in House of Leaves are layered in a chain of associations, each referring back to another.

We know which “author” is responsible for which text simply from the look of the words, before we’ve even parsed them for content, because each is presented in its own font, making explicit and literal Foucault’s observation that “the name seems always to be present, marking off the edges of the text…” (Foucault 107) The text insists, visually and otherwise, that we constantly consider which of the fictional authors’ discourses we’re currently experiencing. “Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality.” (Foucault 102) The author puts on mask after mask. This book is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but is by one of its fictional characters (Zampanò), with remarks by another (Johnny Truant). It is precisely not Danielewski’s

identity that undersigns each constituent part of the text. 

However, turning from the title page to the copyright info on the following one,2 we see that Mark Z. Danielewski holds the copyright to this novel. This proper name/historical personage, then, is performing the first of the “characteristic traits of the author function” pointed out by Foucault: “the author function is linked to the juridical and institutional system that encompasses, determines, and articulates the universe of discourses.” (Foucault 113) Danielewski is legally responsible for the text, he owns the intellectual rights to it, and it is he who will take the

 blame for its transgressions. In a process that “one might call penal appropriation,” Foucault writes, texts “really began to have authors… to the extent that authors became subject to punishment.” (Foucault 108) But this cuts two ways: the author both “owns” and can be “blamed” for the text. Foucault argues that, in rejection of “a system of ownership for texts”—and the rights and privileges being an “author” afford—transgression became “an imperative peculiar to literature. It as if the author… compensated for the status that he thus acquired by systematically… practicing transgression and thereby restoring danger to a writing which was now guaranteed the benefits of ownership.” (Foucault 108-109) 

One of the transgressions Danielewski attempts to enact is the dissolving of his identity behind a multiplicity of fictional mediators. Foucault writes that “today’s writing has freed itself from the dimension of expression… it is a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.”  (Foucault 102) Danielewski’s book is made up of parodies of other types of discourses, each performing different characteristics of the author function at different times, and the relationship between them serving to illuminate that “in a novel narrated in the first person, neither the first-person pronoun nor the present indicative refers exactly either to the writer or to the moment in which he writes, but rather to an alter ego whose distance from the author varies, often changing in the course of the work.” (Foucault 112) Zampanò’s voice is a parody of critical discourse, and we can see him acting on Navidson, the protagonist/maker of “The Navidson Record,” in the role of critic described by Foucault: “try[ing] to give this intelligible being a realistic status…a ‘deep’ motive, a ‘creative’ power…” (Foucault 110) That we see this role performed is important, as it highlights the normally obscured fact that “these aspects of an individual which we designate as making him an author are only a projection… of the operations that we force texts to undergo.” (Foucault 110) Johnny Truant, as well as narrating his own story in a freewheeling grammar-challenged parody of first-person narrative, also performs a readership of Zampanò’s text, and in this he is closer to the example Foucault gives of “the self that speaks in the preface to a treatise on mathematics… one that speaks to tell the work’s meaning, the obstacles encountered, and the remaining problems.” (Foucault 112) 

The final level of mediation, “the Editors,” enacts an even deeper form of connection to critical discourse than Zampanò does—to criticism as an institution. Foucault discusses “the four modalities according to which modern criticism brings the author function into play,” defining the author as, variously, “a constant level of value,” “conceptual or theoretical coherence,” “stylistic unity,” and “a historical figure.” (Foucault 111) By organizing the text, marking out different portions of it to be authorized by different voices, even stamping the voices visually, the Editors are performing as modern criticism, fixing the author in place. That they ultimately fail to unify the texts they present, to “neutralize thecontradictions,” demonstrates Foucault’s point that modern criticism needs to move beyond “Saint Jerome’s four criteria of authenticity.” (Foucault 111)

The Editors fail because the contradictions built into “The Navidson Record” are impossible to rectify. They’re more like paradoxes—trying to make sense of them would make you crazy. Johnny Truant is put in this position as he tries to read it, just as the main character in it, Navidson himself, is driven crazy trying to make sense of the spatial anomaly in his house. As readers we wallow in the interpretation of the text. Truant points out that Zampanò has the position of the anomalous hallway in the Navidson house changing: “Maybe it’s a mistake. Maybe there’s some underlying logic to the shift. Fuck if I know. Your guess is as good as mine.” (Danielewski 57) This lackadaisical approach to the material seems to be endorsed by Zampanò as a defense against the obsessive need to reconcile paradox. He offers the Navidson children’s response to the anomalous hallway haunting their parents as a positive example: “The children, however, just accepted it. They raced through the closet. They played in it. They inhabited it. They denied the paradox by swallowing it whole. …children do not know the laws of the world well enough yet to fear the ramifications of the irreconcilable. There are certainly no primal associations with spatial anomalies.” (Danielewski 39) This fear is new. It’s a product of the desire to unify everything, a product of rational thought. Paradox disappears if we “swallow it whole”; attempting to take it apart and reconcile the parts with each other is how to let the text devour you. Each of the “four modalities by which modern criticism brings the author function into play” is concerned with wholeness: it conceives of the author as a totality that “serves to neutralize the contradictions that may emerge…” (Foucault 111) I believe that Foucault is arguing that because criticism is still based on these criteria, the same old questions will continue to proliferate: “Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse?” (Foucault 119) Danielewski’s multi-layered text serves to illustrate assorted characteristics of the author function, his consistent attempt to disappear into his text perhaps helping to point the way towards Foucault’s “form of culture in which fiction would not be limited by the figure of the author.” (Foucault 119) 

Foucault writes that “manifested in the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics” is a “relationship between writing and death…” (Foucault 102) Even the fictional creators within the world of House of Leaves are put into the position described by Foucault: “reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.” (Foucault 102-103) Both versions of “The Navidson Record”—Zampanò’s book and Navidson’s film—are left behind by dead men, but they are not

 representative of the “old tradition exemplified by the Greek epic, which was intended to perpetuate the immortality of the hero.” (Foucault 102) These records do not make their creators immortal. Navidson dies shooting his film, and it is one of the central paradoxes of the text that there is no way for the tapes to have been edited by him or indeed recovered at all; Zampanò includes a note to possible publishers of his work implying that only if readers “dismiss this enterprise out of hand” will you “know… you truly are prosperous” (Danielewski xix); an unattributed note rendered in Truant’s font which is placed between the foreword and introduction reads “This is not for you,” on an otherwise blank page. (Danielewski ix) On every level we are told to turn away from the text; part of the game is daring you not to play it. 

“Writing unfolds like a game that invariably goes beyond its own rules and transgresses its own limits.” (Foucault 102) House of Leaves’ multiple texts are layered: each author is also a reader of a prior version of the text and thus performs a readership by presenting and commenting on that prior text. The Editors are telling us not to trust Truant: “we have never actually met Mr. Truant…” (Danielewski 4). Truant is constantly telling us that Zampanò is making all this up—after all, how could a blind man write so descriptively about a film?; Zampanò is merely describing a supposedly documentary film he says might be “a hoax of exceptional quality.” (Danielewski 3) Each narrator in turn is pointing to another more primary text.3 This hallway being endless, though, the chain eventually stretches all the way back around: Navidson, who we have understood as the fictional limit point at the end of the chain, is revealed to be in possession of a book called House of Leaves. (Danielewski 465) He burns it, first for reading light, then just for light. Navidson’s burning of the book—which is both the book we’re reading and a book-within-a-film-within-the-text that makes up that book—represents the final transgression of Danielewski’s game. He attempts to burn the text itself, to negate it, make it disappear. Navidson says, “I have nothing left… I’m no longer sitting on anything… whatever it was is gone. I’m floating or falling or I don’t know what.” (Danielewski 468) This text is printed upside down. All foundations have been removed. All limits transgressed. Navidson soon dies, making the recovery of his tapes, and thus the existence of our text, impossible. 

The major irony in using House of Leaves to illustrate the ideas in “What is an Author?” is that I’ve had to construct the authors of those texts in order to discuss them. I have frequently used the name “Foucault” to represent the concepts discussed in “What is an Author?” and have painstakingly unified the multiplicity of texts in House of Leaves under the sign “Danielewski.” I have seemingly done just what Foucault accuses modern criticism of doing, falling back on the fact that “the author provides the basis for explaining not only the presence of certain events in a work, but also their transformations, distortions and diverse modifications…” (Foucault 111) I have used the name Foucault to represent “a field of conceptual or theoretical coherence” and the name Danielewski to “neutralize the contradictions that…emerge in a series of texts.” (Foucault 111) These names, though, are only representations of the texts, just as within House of Leaves Johnny Truant and Zampanò are only personas constructed to mobilize different forms of discourse. We must remember that: “It would be just as wrong to equate the author with the real writer as to equate him with the fictitious speaker; the author function is carried out and operates in the scission itself, in this division and this distance.” (Foucault 112) I would like to consider my inability to move outside the deployment of the author function not a failure, but only an illustration of how imperative the message in “What is an Author?” still is. We obviously still do not have a form of culture in which fiction is not limited by the figure of the author. 

1 All references are to Random House’s ISBN 0-375-70376-4 (paperback) 2-Color edition of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Pantheon Books, New York: 2000. 

2 The copyright page contains another example of the fictional world intruding into the real one. Just as the title page features the names of fictional characters, the standard warning about the fictional contents of the text is highly personalized and signed by “the Editors,” one of the fictional voices in the text.

3 In fact, this may be true of the book as a whole. The sales pitch on the inside front-cover flap begins: “Years ago, when House of Leaves was first being passed around, it was nothing more than a badly bundled heap of paper, parts of which would occasionally surface on the internet.”   

Acknowledgement to Laura Yim at SFSU, in whose Theory of Lit. course I was prompted to use a work of art to elucidate an aspect of critical theory. 

Please comment on the savage inaccuracy of my ideas, my overall lack of intellectual rigor, fundamental misunderstanding of Foucault's ideas, etc. 

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