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House of Leaves, postmodernism and the administration of fear

House of Leaves, postmodernism and the administration of fear

In his recent piece on the administration of fear, Mark Thwaite asks whether “The Ministry of Fear is not just the name of a novel but a name for what novels are?” Does Art itself have as one of its tasks the administration of fear, the potential to perpetuate the environment of fear in which the State has placed us? Two immediately identifiable formulations of this idea present themselves:  that all literature by its very nature contributes to the state’s fear control system (the ‘negative’ conception) alternatively the thought that the inherent thread of fear permeating literature can either disrupt or accentuate the State’s environment.

Modernism’s literature often stood at the chasm of the dazzling void before falling back in awe, failure, humility or all three of the above and more. Since then, postmodernist texts have often “progressed” from this by delving into the void for empty self-reflection such as the  cheap conjuror’s tricks performed by  Rushdie et al where the very act of self-reflexivity is its own exploration and explanation. A literary space is forged where self-awareness, melancholy and memory bare their white teeth with gimmicky interjections, letting the reader know this is questioning their own experience but never attempting to nourish by engaging with hunger. The work is framed in a self-conscious setting and removed of its power to disrupt is the same manner as activist art might be if placed in the setting of a gallery.

Elsewhere, for example, the works of the Oulipo movement have used tight mathematical and cognitive constraints in order to create works which can, depending on one’s tastes, leave one full of wonder at their puzzle-box complexity or, alternatively, left cold at the movement’s apolitical, hermetic literary exercises in cognitive novelty.

In his piece Mark further mentions that “The Ministry of Fear could very well be the title of Kafka’s collected works.” And one might plausibly suggest many modernist texts which could be said to engage with fear and its administration. But how can one attempt to further this concept when so much of the other literature being written in this climate of fear might be entitled either The Ministry for Performative Administration or The Administration of Melancholy?

 In an attempt to perform a John Stuart Mill in minutiae and reconcile these seemingly disparate threads then this essay will turn to Mark Z. Danielewski’s complex and unashamedly postmodern novel House of Leaves.


I still get nightmares. In fact I get them so often I should be used to them by now. I’m not. No one ever really gets used to nightmares.

From this paradoxical construction onwards House of Leaves oozes and seeps fear.  Captured in this excerpt is something fundamental which the work is positing about the nature of fear and by the extension of the concept opening this essay something about postmodern literature’s attempt at exploring, mapping and deconstructing the void. That it cannot be contained. That fear and the void are only promulgated by self-examination.

For Navidson, the protagonist of the non-existent film about the labyrinth growing inside his house which the tattoo artist Johnny finds a review of in his dead neighbour’s apartment, these elements of the void could not be more apparent.  The labyrinth which grows inside his house does so because of his obsession with that discrepancy between the interior and the exterior. This obsession with this initially tiny space, of exploring and explicating its contents only serves to perpetuate the void’s size and leaves us lost without any hope of seeing the dazzling abyss at whose edge we once stood. Or worse, we may end up back at the edge of that same abyss but the tiresome exploration has removed the fear and awe it once instilled in us. Its presence becomes the norm and the cannibalistic environment of fear subsumes us.

To say something about what the void is, to attempt to give it properties, spatial location etc. is futile. It is both internal to human beings and felt by us and located elsewhere, it is an absence. One may view it from the outside yet its nothingness is endless. Bu to try to treat it as a black rock face, to be abseiled down in to armed with rope and cameras with only self-referential morsels of irony for sustenance. However it may be a place where real self-reflexivity might be possible.  If the void is not a black mirror where some slightly tainted doppelganger stares vacantly back but a vastness which one finds a loneliness so complete that: “When at last nothing was present but my perfect nothingness and there was nothing more to see, they ceased to see me too.” And the gaze which is returned is one’s own returned eternally by the abyss.

The fact that House of Leaves uses a postmodern toolbox of stylistic features to accomplish this exposé ultimately means that Danielewski too must fail in order to succeed. However in this instance the fact that the text succumbs to its own logic is a triumph. Everywhere Danielewski’s use of codes,  postmodern metafictional referentiality and Oulipian games, whilst no less carefully constructed, curl in parabolic arcs to nothingness. These are not just empty tricks deployed as meaning; they are failures, not of the text (which “cannot be blamed”) but of the method, with each repeated failure  contributing to the success in exposing postmodernism’s own shortcomings.

This is further accentuated by the book’s attempts to turn the very act of reading into a postmodern performance. When there is unbearable tension the number of words on the page is reduced so that the pages must be turned faster and the multi-layered codes continue to encourage many to obsessively make notes on their own copy of the book. Its fear cannot be confined even to the fiction it has created, it is truly afraid of what a novel can be and do, leaving the reader in a labyrinth where:


You will see nothing in that distance of eternal emptiness, you will not hear your own step, you will find nothing solid for your rest.

House of Leaves uses the literary techniques of postmodernism in order to reveal postmodernism’s own failings in attempting to familiarise the void. In attempting to map the perfect nothingness postmodernism only serves to amplify it’s threat.

This self-perpetuating cartography of dark coordinates often mirrors the State’s belief that any state of peace can be convincingly presented as a state of impending war so long as new threats can be identified commercialised and ‘sold’. If it can bombard the people with these clear patches of darkness  it may produce  an environment  where distinct entities are identified in such great numbers that all action is paralysed by fear.  By the very nature of the techniques it employs, House of Leaves offers no solution of its own, a solution which may lie in accepting the void’s defamiliarity, removing the self-conscious exploration and simply falling back.

But what of the negative conception mentioned initially: the idea that all art contributes to the administration of fear? Despite being intuitively false, it does not seem beyond possibility. But might this not lead to the Freudian compulsions which result in direct action against the state’s control? After all:

Jackals have little importance if truth for gazelles is to taste fear, if it is fear alone that makes them surpass themselves, driving them to the most spectacular acrobatics!
-- Dan Fraser (02/05/2013)

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