[008 - the novel as inhuman]
September 23, 2017 by alex christie
My current project/chapter has me returning to Mark Z. Danielewski's work, a novelist who's been with me since I first thought about teaching, and latter became an important fixture for how I think about literature, and then, again, latter, became an even more important figure for how I think about ethics, (non)humans, and so much more. Although the chapter is specifically interested in inter-weaving Danielewski's most recent set of novels, collectively known as The Familiar, into contemporary posthumanism, figuring The Familiar as another resource for theorizing relationality among (non)humans, it's also given me a chance to revisit his work as a whole. Specifically, I'm looking at some of the 'paratextual' (if you can call it that) projects surrounding The Familiar including a talk that later became an article called 'Parable No. 9: The Hopeless Animal and the End of Nature.' Given in Cologne, Germany in the Fall of 2010, the talk catalyzed my interest in posthumanism, actor network theory, and speculative realism (though I've largely abandoned the latter two in favor of the former), and continues to inform how I think about hope and our relation to animals. By that same token, I'm hoping that 'Parable No. 9' will offer insight into Danielewski's novels---there's clearly cross-contamination---as well as provide fodder for positioning his work among other posthuman theorists.
Any chance to revisit Danielewski's work, to my mind, is also an invitation to re-read House of Leaves, which I first read as a senior in high school and greatly influenced my expectation about fiction and what novels could do. I still have the same copy I read nearly a decade ago. It still has pencil and pen marks from years of annotating. It's now signed, though it remains wine-stained and its pages are prone to falling out. It is a strange object, and it holds more significance than I can articulate here. However, I want to briefly think about how House of Leaves conditioned my expectations for novels as inhuman forces rather as somehow familiar compatriots or friends. That is, the novel has never (just) been a site for depicting the intense personal experience of characters, but always a force for modulating the subjectivity of readers; not a site for reflection, but for the production of difference. That is, I've always understood the novel primarily in terms of it's material affective force, not unlike how new materialism would understand it.
In the opening chapter of her Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett describes debris found in a storm drain in Baltimore: 'Glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick. As I encountered these items, they shimmied back and forth between debris and thing---between, on the one hand, stuff to ignore, except insofar as it betokened human activity (the workman's efforts, the litterer's toss, the rat-poisoner's success), and, on the other hand, stuff that commanded attention in its own right' (4). This distinction between debris and thing inaugurates an intense discussion and rearticulation of a political ecology that cannot merely include anthropocentric notions of nonhuman stuff. Instead, matter itself comes to matter in terms of what it does within the polis---rerouting attention, causing power outages, or (dis)allowing crops to grow. Matter is a force that affects the humans who encounter it, dispersing agency from the unified and autonomous body of the liberal human subject.
House of Leaves's protagonist and major textual contributor, Johnny Truant, offers this description of Zampaño's room: '...and for some odd reason---what I remember most of all---a very old tube of chapstick with an amber like resin, hard & cracked. Which still isn't entirely accurate; though don't be misled into thinking I'm not trying to be accurate. There were, I admit, other things I recall about this place, they just don't seem relevant now. To my eye, it was all just junk, time having performed no economic alchemy there, which hardly mattered' (HOL xvi). Here, Johnny sees junk akin to Bennett's debris, but what he finds later is that the junk is actually a bunch of 'things' that are important in their own right. One could read the ephemera that Johnny finds as anthropocentric traces of a previous life, markers of both Zampaño and the Navidson's narrative that must be retraced, linearized, and narrativized. However, the novel resists this reading at every turn, insisting on the affective properties this 'junk.' Johnny's warped physical and psychological state are less indicative of something associated with the narrative he's piecing together, than a very literal and physical haunting produced by the sheer affective force of the ephemera he's dealing with and the process of tracking everything down.
What Johnny finds in reading and editing The Navidson Record is not some (new) way to be human---some recognizable 'self' that tells him how (not) to be---nor another subjectivity to relate to. Instead, he finds the inhuman force of narrative, which produces fear, loneliness, and obsession. Repeated scenes of excessive ephemera highlight the sheer weight of text he edits, stretching Johnny is disparate directions and resisting unification. During a panic attack at the tattoo parlor, when he believes he's being attacked by some monstrous force, he describes, 'Words filling my head. Fragments like artillery shells. Shrapnel, like syllables, flying everywhere. Terrible syllables. Sharp. Cracked. Traveling at murderous speed' (71). Language does not mean here, and it doesn't seem to primarily mean anywhere in the novel, but cuts, wounds, and affects. Language is not primarily semiotic mediator of narrative, but perhaps material and affective.
House of Leaves's epigraph offers a warning: 'This is not for you.' That is, you will not find yourself in here, but what you will find is yourself undergoing a series of changes in light of this iterative intra-action. You will be confronted with something monstrous and inhuman; something language cannot pin it down; something that exceeds humanist and linguistic grasp. I think of Johnny, with his ephemera as the model reader, twisted by the very materiality of the text that we hold. Our postures, our re-orientations of the novel, our affective plight all echo Johnny's relationship with The Navidson Record. Johnny shows us the inhuman we become in our intra-action with literature.
This is a preliminary idea that I hope the chapter refines, but I think the idea is something like this: reading is a becoming, but I think it’s an un-becoming of ourselves—a destabilization rather than a shoring up. Literature confronts us with inhuman forces that reshape our subjectivity—forces felt most explicitly in poetry but surely imbricated in all writing. The question I understand Danielewski’s novels to open is what do we do with this inhuman force? What does this unmaking do to us? This chapter will turn to the productive potential opened by this inhuman confrontation and our individual and collective unmaking.