text {isle}

one small islet in the sea of digital text
February 20th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck


As the stories in House of Leaves unfolds, there is a sharp distinction between the more formal style of language used in Zampanò’s documentation of Navidson’s exploration and Johnny’s profanity-laced colloquial style – until we encounter the word I’m hesitant to use, even as a quotation –  the word “fuck” occurs as an aberration Zampanò’s section, accompanied by Johnny’s footnote (#117, pages 99-100).  This footnote is a discourse dedicated to a term that has been loved or hated by English speakers for the past five hundred years (the OED documents the first usage of the verb form in a marginal note made in a manuscript at Oxford in 1528).

Screen Shot 2013-02-20 at 1.10.16 PM


Johnny’s footnoted discourse, when coupled with the documentation of Navidson’s crew’s investigation of the secret spaces of the house, begins to take on new meaning.  On the page opposite Johnny’s exposition, we find Navidson shooting video footage that “describes the agony of the wait” and restlessly pacing.  The larger stories of the book also shed light on this topic.  The interplay of Johnny’s sexual explorations with Navidson & Co’s exploration of the house seem to indicate that there is some similarity in these expeditions.  Each scenario features male characters probing interior spaces.  The language used to describe the investigation of the house is more is sometimes more erotic than architectural, like in the excerpt from Denise Lowery’s Sketches:  The Process of Entry.  The quotation uses evocative vocabulary like entwining, dance, penetrating, and prodding inky folds as it describes the entry of the men and their flares into the space, the relationship between the play of light and dark within the space, and the subsequent dying of the lights (HoL 154).  The house, then, is described both as a monster that “devours” their connection to the outside world (161) and also as “the woman you never want to meet” (162); when these descriptions are combined, it takes on the role of the monstrous female Other.  The labyrinthine house is simultaneously intriguing and repulsive, impenetrable and yet also inescapable.  The story’s progress follows the relationship between the human body and subjective exploration of space (169), touching on the topic of “sensation” (177) just prior to introducing the reader by degrees to the interiority of the house (are these anatomically suggestive?):  “The Infinite Corridor, the Anteroom, the Great Hall, and The Spiral Staircase, exist for all, though their respective size and even layout sometimes changes” (178).  After this little bit of exploration, the Zampanò portion of the text speculates that what they find in the house may be an “interactive Rorschach test” (179) – a topic that I mentioned in a previous post.  This Rorschach reference is immediately followed by Johnny’s contemplation of the blue pills given to him by a Dr. Ogelmeyer to help him overcome his anxiety.  [Note: to ogle is to look at amorously, flirtatiously, impertinently, or lustfully.]  The footnote ends by documenting another sexual encounter before returning to the Navidson narrative with the not-so-subtle: “Fortunately Reston’s nausea does not last long, and he and Navidson can spend the rest of the day pushing deeper and deeper into the labyrinth” (182).

Here, I think the author is himself is conducting a Rorschach test on the reader, and even taken the trouble to cue us in to what he is doing.  He has integrated a lot of interplay between these separate explorations – one architechtural (Navidson & Co.), one sexual (Johnny).  He has also included hints that link subjective exploration of a physical space with provocative descriptions and gendered language.  The goal of each exploration seems to be to gain greater interiority – Johnny wants to decipher Zampanò’s manuscript as he also attempts to decode women, while Navidson attempts to maintain a connection with Karen while simultaneously wanting to further explore the house.  Discussions of public vs. private space and “the meaning of interiority” related to Karen’s jewelry box and Navy’ and Karen’s relationship (350) are interwoven with Johnny’s description of his mother’s locket and the letter locked inside (351).  One of the interviews Karen conducts also refers to the male quest to explore the house, couching the exploration in sexual terms:  “Notice only men go into it.  Why?…They must penetrate, invade, conquer, destroy, inhabit, impregnate and if necessary even be consumed by it.  It really comes down to what men lack.  They lack the hollow, the uterine cavity, the creative life-yielding physiological incavation.  The whole thing’s about womb envy or vagina envy, whatever you prefer. . . . Women are everything that’s internal and hidden.” (357-8).  Later, a discussion of Karen’s modeling career talks of how she invites the scopophilic gaze with her smile that was “guaranteed to spark fantasies of further interiority” (416).

What do you think?  Have I presented a strong enough case?  Is House of Leaves about a masculine quest to discover and penetrate secret, intimate, interior spaces?  Or is it about sex?  Are they the same thing?  (Is it obvious that I’m concurrently enrolled in a gender theory class? Does that affect why I see these parallels?)

February 13th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

What does this mean?


{ Rorschach inkblot }

source:  wikimedia commons

What does this mean?  That is a question frequently asked by me and other readers of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.  After a short google search, I landed at the House of Leaves forum, a section of the author’s website that allows a community of readers to interact – to wonder, question, debate, and discover.  The style of the novel, interposing Zampano’s documentary report-like text with copious footnotes referencing literary, scholarly, and falsified citations interspersed with Johnny Truant’s rarely punctuated meandering stories describing how the text and his life intersect – and show how his life becomes a series of footnotes subordinate to Zampano’s exposition.

What does _____ mean?  As humans, we search for meaning. We want things to make sense, and think they should make sense.  We often make connections or interpret old knowledge in light of new to form new conclusions – or at least new hypotheses.  The book is filled with repeating words and images – and we expect engineered patterns to have an underlying purpose.  The heavy concentration of superscripted references and their corresponding footnotes drives the reader to continually probe and search for answers; as the characters in the book search the labyrinthine house or maze of manuscript scraps for answers, the reader also searches the text for clues.  So many things are explained that those that remain unexplained compel the reader to search beyond the book.

Conveniently, the author has assisted the reader in this quest for answers.  Any web search using the book’s title is likely to bring up a page of the forum.  The phrase “Rorschach test” (HOL 197) occurs in one of the  Zampano sections, and the corresponding footnote tells of Truant’s growing anxiety and his quest for clarity and meaning from the manuscript.  My search for the title + Rorschach brought up a forum post as the first result of my query.  Sure enough, somebody else was positing the same idea that I had been contemplating: that the novel acts as a Rorschach test.  There were a couple of comments, one asked the original poster to revisit the idea after finishing the book, to see if the original commenter’s opinion had been changed or reinforced by the remainder of the story.  This is just an example of one of the questions or ideas that readers speculated about on the forum.  Ultimately, the forum offers a digital space for readers to congregate – to question, speculate, and discuss the book, and, in the process, to develop a community of inquisitors focused on a shared text.  This search, this communal exploration, this collaborative quest for ideas and answers mimics both Truant’s consultations with others to decipher unfamiliar languages as well as Navidson & Co.’s coordinated investigation of the house.  Each quest for meaning, whether by Truant, Navidson, or the reader’s investigation of the forum, takes the investigator into a labyrinth of ideas with twists and turns, unexpected dead-ends, or tangential hallways of inquiry.

Like the book, the forum can act as a Rorschach test of sorts.  The way the reader interprets the meaning of the book is influenced by the reader’s perspective.  The searches the reader chooses to conduct on the forum, or the threads one chooses to read are influenced by the reader’s own questions and perspective.  Sometimes consulting the communal repository of inquiries, speculations, and attempted answers offers a different perspective, allowing the reader to adhere to or alter prior suppositions.

[Interesting side note:  my perception of the inkblot pictured above was directly influenced by today’s featured image at wikimedia commons.  What did you see?  Why did you see that?]

February 6th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

fabricating society


jacquard loom


{ jacquard loom }
source:  wikimedia commons

The link between language, creation, storytelling, and fiber arts are strongly linked in English and other Indo-European languages.  In Weaving the Word:  The Metaphorics of Weaving and Female Textual Production, Kathryn Sullivan Kruger expounds on this link between the English language, storytelling, and textile arts:

“A network of terms exists in English contending that a written text is like a fabric – spun, woven, knitted, quilted, sewn, or pieced together.  So many of our phrases in English are colored by our ancestors’ experience of making cloth.  We talk about the ‘fabric’ of our society when characterizing our collective ideas.  When someone makes up a story, we say they are ‘spinning a yarn.’ Our thoughts can ‘unravel,’ ‘tangle,’ or ‘fray.’  Sometimes our ideas have too many ‘loose ends,’ which is a term for something woven but not yet tied off the loom, and hence in danger of falling apart” (30).

But the link between language and weaving does not lie solely in the way we conceptualize thought or tell stories.  According to Scheid and Svenbro’s book The Craft of Zeus:  Myths of Weaving and Fabric, the authors point out that weaving “fabricates society” (9).  The act of weaving creates a society and binds people together.  This can be done through producing and procuring raw materials or through communal acts of creation, such as working together on a weaving project (Kruger 22).  Scheid and Svenbro put it this way: “Weaving unites what must be united.  To weave is to unite, to interlace, to bind:  the act is so straightforward that it requires no explanation” (10).

Keep this societal connection in mind, I’ll return to it shortly.  But first, I’d like to share a fun fact:  did you know that the first programmable machine was a weaving loom?  In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich discusses Jacquard’s invention of a loom that could be programmed with punch cards to weave intricate images.  (Interestingly, according to wikipedia, Jacquard was illiterate and had been apprenticed both as a bookbinder and type-founder prior to returning to the failing family weaving business.  His invention was based on earlier attempts by Bouchon and Falcon to automate textile production.) One thing I find fascinating about this is that images were being programmed and reproduced prior to words or numbers – textiles were formulated and formed before texts – and the loom was the precursor to the computer and modern programmable digital media.

As I contemplate today’s globally interconnected world – one in which our society is tethered via a wired or wireless connection to the world wide web (a web is a silken fabric created by spiders or weaving goddesses) – I realize that this virtual web has fabricated a larger and broader society.  By weaving ourselves into the digital web, we are connected, united, interlaced, bound to others through invisible (to us) connections – the programmed strings of numbers in a network of machines.  These connections can function like the warp threads in a tapestry – though not visible on the surface, they bind us together as we interact for work and play; or the connections can be revealed and exposed for examination, like the visible warp and weft threads of woven fabric.

January 30th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Literary Labyrinth


source:  wikimedia commons

How do you read a book?  Do you start at chapter one and read straight through to the end of the story?  Do you read the publishing information or the title page first?  What about the dedication, foreword, or introduction?  Do you begin reading, then skip to the last chapter to peek at the end before either continuing the story or abandoning the book?  Reading a book is usually a linear process:  start at page one, read straight through.  The end.  Of course, end notes, appendices, or glossaries can alter this somewhat, but the order in which we read a book is not usually a topic we devote much thought to, unless the book is one of the Choose Your Own Adventure sort of gamebooks.  But gamebooks are written with the idea that although the author has written multiple paths and endings to the story, the reader chooses which path to follow.  If you were like me, you chose each of the possibilities in turn and read all of the alternate stories.

Mark Z. Danielewski, the author of House of Leaves, takes the reader on a labyrinthine journey through his book.  In a book whose characters include an award winning photographer who creates a documentary, Danielewski plays the part of the director, focusing and refocusing the gaze of the reader in a non-traditional, non-linear journey through the book.  The text of the book becomes a maze, directing the reader first one direction, then another way, until the reader reaches a dead end.  After backtracking to the place of departure, the reader then begins again, taking the next suggested route until another dead end is reached.  The way this plays out with the text begins in the normal way: by reading line after line as the story unfolds, until the reader encounters a superscript number or symbol that references a footnote1 at the bottom of the page, before resuming reading from the point just proximal to the previous digression. Because the reader is following an elaborate maze of text, combined with the different voices that comprise the text (denoted by differing fonts and writing styles), the story takes on an Escher-like2 quality that calls into question the nature of reality, and how we perceive and interact with the world around us.  The constant direction and redirection of our gaze becomes conspicuous, as if the author is earnestly trying to make us see what he sees, but – like Escher’s stair climbers – it takes time for readers to acquire the same perspective, while the author continues to build overlapping layers of story.



{ labyrinth }
source:  wikimedia commons

1 The reader then looks to the bottom of the page and reads the footnote. The note may be short, like a bibliographic reference, or it may continue on for several pages. When this is the case, the reader must read ahead, then turn back to the point of departure and continue reading. Or the footnote may direct the reader to an appendix for more than fifty pages of supplemental text.
2 M. C. Escher, Dutch artist.

January 23rd, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Searching…or the Holy Grail of Information



{ Holy Grail Tapestry #2: The Arming and Departure of the Knights }
source:  wikimedia commons

After perusing a number of websites devoted to digitizing historical and literary information, such as maps, manuscripts, historical documents, and literary works (The Walt Whitman Archive, Civil War Washington, Mapping the Republic of Letters, the Salem Witch Trials Archive, Railroads and the Making of Modern America, Preserving Virtual Worlds 2, and – one of my new favorites – The Public Domain Review), I have started to contemplate the complex love/hate relationship we have with technology.  Some people are traditionalists, holding tight to physical books, print magazines, and emphasizing handwriting in schools.  (There’s quite a debate over cursive vs. keyboarding.)  Others abandon yesterday’s media in favor of the newest and sleekest tablet or e-reader, or boasting about the technologically advanced school that uses only digital media. (Both types are profiled in this Washington Post story about high tech vs. low tech education.)  Most of us would fall somewhere along this technological spectrum, neither using solely physical media nor solely digital.  Most of us type some documents and handwrite others, or switch from browsing websites and digital books on a laptop or e-reader to reading a book from the library or our own book shelf.

But whether we are book purists or embrace digital media, we have all be influenced by advances in technology, and the way we look for, find, and use information as been altered as a direct result of the digital age.  We know we can find information with a few swipes of a touchscreen.  How many of us have reached for a phone, tablet, or other device when presented with a question we do not have an answer to?  Our frequent response is to google it.  The term became so pervasive and synonymous with online searches for information, that the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) added an entry for the verb ‘google’ in 2006.


I have often had a question occur to me while in class and caught myself reaching for my phone before I realized what I was doing.  Since using a phone in class is usually prohibited and students are more likely to be presumed to be texting or playing a game of angry birds than searching for information, I drop my phone like a hot potato and make a mental note to find the answer later.  This scenario illustrates just how much I (and I’m sure I am not alone in this) have become accustomed to instant access to information.  A lot of time and effort has been put into building websites like those I linked to above and in previous posts.  People spend hours scanning documents, coding websites, and editing the information stored there for accuracy and navigability.  Scholars in the past have had to spend days, weeks, and months sifting through handwritten or typed primary source documents, while students today reap the benefits of digitally stored documents that have also been transcribed for easy searchability.  A key word or phrase in the search box on a digital archive website or in a search engine brings the results we want in only seconds or minutes.  We have become accustomed to instant access, and information has become cheap and easy.  We complain about sites that are poorly designed, have broken links, or contain grammar and spelling errors, calling into question their credibility.  We have become consumers not just of products, but of information.  This point was made particularly apparent to me after reading an article by Sophie (daughter of google’s Eric Schmidt) about her recent trip to North Korea, which is well worth reading.

As I looked at the archival websites linked above, even after recently reading about Sophie’s trip and the conditions in North Korea, I found myself judging them like a consumer comparing products prior to purchase…this one has x, but the other one has y…I don’t like the way z works… as if I could choose which site to like best based on how it compares to other archival sites, rather than the quality and quantity of information available, and whether or not the information would be helpful for my area of study.  I realized that I was viewing them with a consumerist attitude, and that I have come to take this access to information for granted – which prompted several questions:  Is this a result of the culture we live in, one that has fast food, sound bites, and high speed internet widely available?  Or is it due to the wide availability of all kinds of media – from the ubiquitous TV screens, prevalent Wi-Fi, wide availability of inexpensive books, and digital media that can be accessed from a computer the size of a deck of cards that we carry in our pocket?  Perhaps it is because we have widely available access to information through libraries and educational institutions, rather than censorship via a Black Knight who inhibits our quest by declaring that “none shall pass” or a bridgekeeper who must test us first….




 { Black Knight’s helmet }
source:  wikimedia commons

January 16th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck


ED daguerreotype

{ daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson }
source:  wikimedia commons

I have been perusing Emily Dickinson’s letters and poems via a website called Emily Dickinson’s Correspondence:  A Born-Digital Textual Inquiry, (edited by Martha Nell Smith and Lara Vetter and published by the University of Virginia Press) and sifting through the digital archives of her handwritten letters and poems, along with reading Jeanne Holland’s “Scraps, Stamps, and Cutouts:  Emily Dickinson’s Domestic Technologies of Publication.”  Dickinson’s strong opposition to having her poems printed is well documented.  She preferred to circulate her poems in her own handwriting, with her own punctuation and embellishment and without the interference of a professional printer.  Her letters and manuscripts, some of which were hand-sewn together, are written on paper and scraps of household miscellanea – receipts, bills, fliers, and brown paper bags.  These bits of domestic detritus form the context for Dickinson’s writing, and emphasize her reclusive lifestyle and preference for remaining at home.  Holland quotes Smith (one of the editors of the EDC website), who explains Dickinson’s methodology:

“That she did not regard works as untouchably sacred is obvious from her own role as reader, for Dickinson sometimes went so far as to cut up others’ works to take an illustration or group of words to append to her own.  Unlike the mutilations to her poems and letters, this is not an angry or hostile act to excise offensive expressions, but a sign of a reader at play or engaged in dialogic drama, combining hers with others’ literary productions, remarking both in the process” (150).

Looking through her letters, I find her inclusions fascinating.  Some contain stamps and clippings from other publications – like “Alone and in a Circumstance” – while others contain pictures attached by bits of thread or pressed flowers (scroll down a bit to see examples).  (Many of Dickinson’s documents are protected by copyright, but Harvard’s Houghton Library has a few things on display that do not require a login to access.)  Dickinson’s chosen material repositories for her writing, as well as her added bits of embellishment, provide additional contextual clues about her writing.  By isolating and liberating printed quotes from their sources, as well as making use of plant material and scraps, she recontextualizes them on her own terms and for her own use.  In the case of the clipped quotes, Dickinson really is engaging with the text and adapting it for her own purposes.

I remember years ago, when I first transferred to a college on Florida’s gulf coast, I became friends with a group of girls in my dorm.  We had a vibrant epistolary exchange.  Notes, letters, and journals were often elaborately decorated. Scraps of paper, old outdated computer punch cards, and index cards were embellished with flower petals, sand, shells, magazine clippings, colored inks, and doodled artwork.  Many evenings would find one or more of us furnished with rubber cement, a stack of cards and paper, a variety of pens, and a supply of favorite magazines.  (Mine always seemed to be Victoria Magazine, Outside, Backpacker, and Coastal Living.)  The embellishments we added were more than merely decorative – they also served a communicative purpose, and frequently referenced a shared experience or inside joke.  We often repurposed words and had our own mini-dialect with layers of meaning embedded in the words and phrases we used.

Thinking about my past experiences with embellished letters fueled my fascination with Dickinson’s correspondence.  How much additional meaning did she invest in the bits that decorate her documents?  Were there layers of meaning that were evident only to those who shared experiences or conversations with her?  Is it possible to discern Dickinson’s intended meanings?

January 9th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Liquid text


illuminated bible

{ detail from a handwritten illuminated latin Bible }
source:  wikimedia commons

While thinking about all the ways we acquire information today – websites, digital readers, and the old-fashioned book, I remembered two articles from a class last semester that provided different perspectives on texts.  I read an article by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum entitled “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” on the same day that I read Kate Rigby’s article “Ecocriticism.”  While Kirschenbaum explains the role of digital humanities in academia, Rigby opens her article with a discussion Michelle Boisseau’s poem, “Parchment,” which describes the laborious process of creating a medieval illuminated prayer book.  (I am uncertain whether it is permissible to reprint her poem here.  If I can determine that it is alright, I will add it to this post.)  The juxtaposition of these two articles made me ponder the implications of the types of texts we choose to examine.

I think it is interesting to contrast Rigby’s discussion of Boisseau’s poem…

“In her poetic presentation of this prayerbook, Boisseau calls attention not to its meaning as a text, nor to its economic or antiquarian value, but to its materiality.  Or rather, she asks us to reconsider its potential meaning and value in relation to its materiality, perceived in terms of its cost to the natural world.  Thus, she recalls the slaughtered calf, whose skin supplied the parchment, the oak trees, the insect-engendered galls from which supplied dark ink for the written text, and all the other animals, vegetables and minerals, which made possible the material production of this artifact” (Rigby 3).

…with Kirschenbaum’s discussion of our fascination with e-media devices:

“Today, we see the simultaneous explosion of interest in e-reading and e-book devices like the Kindle, iPad, and Nook and the advent of large-scale text digitization projects, the most significant of course being Google Books…” (Kirschenbaum 60).

Kirschenbaum concludes that this “explosion of interest” has resulted in “a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed, a scholarship and pedagogy that are bound with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people that live an active 24/7 life online” (60).

[Side note: pedagogy is a fancy academic word for teaching or education.]

Both of the above mentioned articles reference ideas of materiality associated with texts, whether they are physical or digital.  Both Boisseau’s poem and Rigby’s discussion of it focus on the physical components of the text:  the parchment made from calf skin, and the inks from plants and insects that paint the words and images we can still see today.  Before the invention of the printing press, monks and scribes spent long hours painstakingly handwriting pages of text.  As a result, books were expensive and much rarer than they are today and belonged to those privileged enough to afford them.

Contrast the expense and privileged access to medieval volumes with today’s digital texts.  They can be easily disseminated and accessed if one has access to the internet via an appropriate device.  (Of course, keep in mind that at the top of this post you viewed a virtual image of an illuminated manuscript, rather than the actual physical page.)  This relationship between texts and rapid communication, as Kirschenbaum reminds us, can change the way that we view and perform scholarship and pedagogy.  Students, academics, and members of the general public no longer have to travel to distant museums to see important texts and works of art if a good facsimile is available online.

But what are the implications of exchanging a physical object (book, painting, tapestry, etc.) for one that is digital and transitory?  Is the color and detail of the illuminated manuscript adequately represented?  What about the texture, smell, and weight?  Can we see the thick layers of paint and brush strokes that characterize van Gogh’s paintings in a digitized two dimensional photo?  Does it matter?


old books - wikimedia

{ This is not a book. }
source:  wikimedia commons

What about the book?  Is it a physical object, a digital file, a mental construct?  Is it an individual object with its own identifying features, or is digital words on a page that take shape of their container like a liquid in a glass?  Does changing the method of delivery change our perception of the nature of information or of truth?  For example, is truth an unchanging constant universal fact – represented by permanently inked ideas on paper – or is it a highly subjective opinion that can be edited, deleted, or copied and pasted into a new context?  With our ability to alter media via the ‘edit’ and ‘delete’ buttons, texts are no longer static.  How does this affect our perception of “facts”?  Are our words and facts now liquids that take on the shape and color of their digital repositories, possibly to be preserved for posterity or impulsively deleted?  Are our words painstakingly chosen to achieve the exact shade of meaning we intend, or do we compose at a speed only limited by the dexterity of our fingers?



Kirschenbaum, Matthew G.  “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”  The Modern Language Association:  ADE Bulletin, number 150, 2010.

Rigby, Kate.  “Ecocriticism.”  Introducing Criticism at the Twenty-First Century.  Julian Wolfreys, ed.  Edinburgh:  Edinburgh UP, 151-78.