Posts from 16th May 2004

16
May 04

HOLIDAY READING = House of Leaves

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HOLIDAY READING = House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

OK so to patch up his collapsing marriage, a World-Famous Photographer buys a house in the Virginia boonies – except when the family move in, they discover a secret room which CAN’T PHYSICALLY BE THERE. WFP decides to explore, and to make a video documentary of the exploration. The tale of all this (plus its academic aftermath) is discovered as a chaotic manuscript in the foul apartment of the dead neighbour of a friend, by one Johnny Truant, tattoo artist. Zampano, the dead man, old and blind, left a trunkful of papers: these are painstakingly reconstructed and annotated by Truant. The book WE get consists of Zampano’s original text *PLUS* Truant’s lowlifestory, as spilled in the endless obsessive rambling footnotes he supplied…

One of Raymond Carver’s collections is called Elephant, short for ‘Elephant in the Room’, the giant massive looming issue everyone in a story is aware of but no one dare mention. You could shorthand HoL as Carver with a Borgesian Elephant. Or else as a Pale Fire knock-off with a Blair Witch (indoor) Project for the poem and the demented reader-critic-footnoter drawn from the Bukowskian LA scuzzworld. Or a B. S Johnson novelisation of Tomb Raider 3. Oulipo-does-Solaris. A disquisition on the role of Non-Euclidean Geometry in Poltergeist. In fact there’s a dozen neat’n’cheeky ways to locate the deliberately complicated lineage of this book, and every time Mr M. Z. DrollAnagramski is our Arne Saknussem, tempting us farther in and down into the path of this or that Bigwig Literary/PopCult Dinosaur…

Generally the problem with ahem ‘ludic’ writing is that, because anything can happen – ie ALL the rules and conventions are up to be playfulled at – not enough seems at stake. Has anyone ever cared about a Nabakov character? They’re always just SO enslimed in the author’s look-at-me cleverness. And games with hommage are mostly crossword-puzzle evasions, wriggling the reader away from the book at hand, its depths and its failures, into the safely contained glamorzone of borrowed thoughts about Great Predecessors, ‘PoMo’ this, experimental that. If a narrative announces itself as Lovecraftian, it’s all too often the author’s admission that he would love to do to you what Lovecraft did to him (but doesn’t know how). When dead Zampano mentions Pierre Menard, you sort of feel Anagramski holding you by yr lapels and shaking you and yelling YES ZAMPANO IS BORGES DO YOU SEE!!!!! But Truant is annoyed also: cz he doesn’t get the reference, and just thinks Zampano is being cute. [INSERT SHUDDER and/or CHUCKLE HERE: the bumpkin bystander just knocked into the ghoul's tomb-opening machinery]

Borges used lineage as a resource, not a shortcut: it was his primary Elephant supply. In a Borges story, a myth or ideal construct from mathematics or pre-modern philosophy, is dropped into a genre-realistic setting, where it immediately becomes an object of terror: the minotaur, the zohar, the Book of Sand… But his genres were dated, and he wasn’t that great a mimic anyway. Despite his much-stated fascination with Buenos Aires lowlife – all those stupid streetfighters with razors – he only really made vivid the lonely and beleaguered fright of the librarian: everyone else – everyone ordinary – walks by unconcerned, untouched. Actually readers (good or bad or mad) aren’t so safely cut off from us. They distort and disturb the lives of non-readers every day: you’re sat beside someone on the bus and you DON?T KNOW WHAT THEY’RE THINKING – is there a frightful boiling world in there, or softly buzzing nothing? What I love love LOVE about this book is how far the author (real name unknown) trusts the power of his own imagination AND YOURS to unsettle you. Except not you as you identify with the High and Exalted Caste of the Reader, but you as you identify with the passerby who cannons into said reader in the street, by mistake. The uncanny and explosively protean space in House of Leaves, which opens up and shifts around – and lures and traps and kills – is no more and no less than the space inside someone else’s head. Even the footnotes go all Cthulhu in one bit. Just because it’s made up doesn’t mean it can’t harm you.

It’s rare that a book review makes me this incensed, but Dick Teresi’s

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It’s rare that a book review makes me this incensed, but Dick Teresi’s smug throwdown of the new tome “Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids” in the New York Times Book Review this week did just that. While the book itself might be too sweeping in its dreamy sci-fi “soon we will all be cyborgs” rhetoric, the review is even more sweeping in its urge to carpet-bomb attack. Teresi constructs the most tired straw-man argument possible, wheeling out old chestnuts of roboticists as reductionists, near-automatons who work in realms of numbers and not “feelings.” It reminded me of how irritated I got waiting in line at the post office recently, as I eavesdropped on a conversation between two women–one, an American woman, and the other a Chinese immigrant. “You see, in America,” said the blonde woman in an exaggeratedly slow, condescending tone, “the emphasis is not on math; it’s on the humanities. In this country, we emphasize creativity.” The quiet Chinese woman nodded her head politely. But math in its purest form is creativity so fine and distilled that you could pour it on the rocks and drink it; privileging one discipline over another is just stupidly myopic.

Consider the hideous trainwreck of flawed reasoning in the second paragraph of the review:

The biologist makes no distinction between human and nonhuman life-forms. The roboticist takes this a step further, refusing to distinguish between living and nonliving objects. An object is the sum of its behaviors. Duplicate the behavior of a person and your robot is human. Out of this obtuse worldview come simplicity and the singleness of purpose required to build metal-and-silicon men.

One of the most painful things about reading reviews like this is that they attempt to attack things for lacking nuance by using the least nuanced, most overgeneralized arguments possible. You can condemn technology for being too cold and black-and-white, for lacking the grey areas of humanity and the ineffable, but it doesn’t help things any to use the broadest, most obtuse strokes possible, to use empty binaries in an attempt to denounce exactly that which you’re railing against.

The grand conclusion that this review draws is that it is impossible to construct robots that match the endlessly complicated wonders of human beings. Sure, but so what? Any fourteen-year-old in biology class could have told you that much. But how can robotics help us to develop our understanding of what it means to be human? It’s a shame that the review didn’t take the time to actually analyze anything in depth, to grapple with ideas of consciousness in a thoughtful, informed way. Instead, we’re treated to an arrogant, half-formed repudiation of half-formed ideas; kneejerk reaction in place of any meaningful action.