The Function of Kittler’s ‘Caesura’ in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves

The Function of Kittler’s ‘Caesura’ in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves

House of Leaves is structurally a non-traditional nested narrative: The physical book by Mark Z. Danielewski is comprised of Zampanò’s detailed manuscript of the Navidson’s 1990 family documentary, commented on and compiled by Johnny Truant, with revisions from Truant’s editors, complete with exhibits, appendices, indexes, colophon, etc. Still similar to other nested narratives such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas that embeds one story into another into Matryoshka stories, and to David Foster Wallace’s “Depressed Person” in Brief Interviews of Hideous Men, Danielewski’s House of Leaves resembles, too, a rabbit hole of footnotes culminating in an ergodic textual labyrinth.

Not the first and certainly not the last of its postmodern kind, it is not enough to say that House of Leaves is a non-traditional text, nor is it fair to shove this book on the shelves with more traditional novels. House of Leaves occupies narrow crossovers of genres, never fully manifesting into a single one, mainly, I argue, due to the compelling typographic features in conjunction with the ordinary book-object’s set of objective expectations.[1] Interestingly to me, it is namely the footnotes that sensationalize falling through the multiple page surfaces, particularly “Footnote 144” (Danielewski 2000, 119). Unfortunately, it is not so easy to tease out the footnote delicately from its neatly nested typographical layer. Typographic design features that are as “present-at-hand” as these, call attention to the manipulated form, and underneath the surface of this typical book-form, materiality lies heavily layered and mediated through narrational and typographic structures.

It would be a pointless and irrelevant task to separate the narrative description from a modern, typographical analysis of “Footnote 144” for “[h]ouse and space are not merely two juxtaposed elements of space” (Bachelard 1964, 43). In this paper, I aim to focus on the materiality of this particular footnote in conjunction with its position within the layers of subsequent narrative and architectural mediation. As the keystone supporting architecture with poetic practices, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space will serve as a theoretical platform from which to understand and even witness the threat of spatial dissonance responding to our being in the world. Lastly, using Paul Virilio’s chrono-photographic rifle as an analogue threatening yet preserving the sanctity of the home’s solitude, the imposition of the framed footnote over twenty-five pages (pp. 119-144) recreates an illusion of cinematic caesurae between two stills, asking the question of what haunts us from within the black space between two frames.

I speculate that Danielewski’s writing process was similar to Johnny Truant’s. Truant compiles the dead man Zampanò’s chest of ephemeral, non-sequential, unbound material into a manuscript the reader knows as House of Leaves “written by Zampanò with introduction and notes by Johnny Truant” (Danielewski 2000, iii).[2]  Piecing together interviews, reviews, articles, critiques, and theories in the attempts to flatten them onto a white screen is another example of this process. For Danielewski, he pieced together important childhood memories of watching films with his avant-garde filmmaker father with ten years of other research; however, instead of beginning writing in a word processor, he used pencil while drafting his House of Leaves (McCaffery 2003, 117). After finishing the penciled rough draft, he spent three weeks in a Pantheon editing studio learning and using QuarkXPress, the industry standard page-layout software in 2000.  It would be reasonable to think of mounds of pencil and paper drafts and sketches of the Navidson house alongside chunks of narrative before being modified and modular-fied through the different design mediums. However, as he puts it, “I’m designing the minute I start writing. I don’t write something and then design it” (VanDerWerff 2012). Text design and narrative, so intertwined in his process, shed light onto the traditional grid layout. Furthermore, his process hints at the hegemony of the grid in typography and the confusing and unsettling effect resulting from its usurpation.

Sophie Cottrell quotes Danielewski in an interview with <boldtype>, “Whether it’s dealing with magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, and of course the Internet, most people living in the 90s have no trouble multi-processing huge sums of information.“ (Cottrell 2000). In appreciating the modern reader’s capacity for parallel processing, he hints again at the importance of the enduring traditional grid in the layout of his modern book. He asserts, “this book could not exist without technology” (Benzen 2007).  The infinite capacity for reproducibility of a journal article, magazine, internet site, etc., changes the design of the text in many ways, but notably, for my argument, in its modular ability to retain form when being moved around the surface during a draft. Working with the specialized design studio QuarkXPress would certainly have made the drafting process easier because the program itself was designed with modularity and easy reproducibility in mind. In fact, the drafting process is a concern of his even in his narrative, when Truant, like Danielewski, becoming physically and psychologically entangled in the mass of ephemera, attempts to lay out the increasingly complicated, erased, destroyed, and troubling narrative taking place in The Navidson Record.

Having established the modularity of Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a turn to the theoretical will lead one to the underlying implications of the grid on the narrative levels. It will also help the reader understand why “Footnote 144” cannot be so easily removed and analyzed as an independent unit without losing long threads of meaning.

Turning to “Footnote 144” presents the reader with the most visual representation of a typological grid form. A series of twenty-five seemingly perfect squares suddenly appear as one turns the page, in the upper right side of the right-sided pages and the left on the left-sided. The odd numbered pages present the text in the comprehensible way with the text read left to right, whereas their opposing-side counterparts exhibit the same text in reverse, as if the ink bled to the other side. The text within the box lists the hundreds of architectural and decorative features that cannot be found within the space, an inscription signifying a substantive nothing. The sequence ends with a black, text-less box on page 144.

In a Piet Mondrian painting or a Gerrit Rietveld chair, the gridded structure continues infinitely in the multi-planar space at the surface, and “the modern grid was synonymous with the continuum itself” (Williamson 1986, 22). This is to say that modernist typographic design not only had an understanding of infinity but also applied it to themes of linearity and planarity, two of the simplest geometric features.  He continues: “the asymmetric distribution of typographic elements on the page created an overall visual tension that converted the negative white space from a passive to an active value. The entire visual field was brought into play” (ibid, 23). In this light, a thin, blue line framing a substantive nothing could be considered part of some invisible, universal grid covering every surface of the world, consequently leveling three dimensions into two, and thus eradicating the hierarchical pretention of the since-prevailing hegemony of the third-dimension. Though Williamson explained the surfaces of the modernist structures linearly expand ad finitum, for the purposes of my argument, I will remain within the ontological narrative levels existing in House of Leaves.

If the reader considers each outlined box as a singular grid rather than a series, it loosely resembles the blueprints or even elevation of a room that sequesters the framed text from the text of the narrative proper as an isolated architectural feature such as a closet or window whose width and height, we have already explored, continues on forever in a sort of abstract and textually “encoded geometric design” (Carpo 1998, 160).

Gaston Bachelard notes a connection between a house’s physical and typographical construction: “[T]hese houses can be drawn—we can make a representation that has all the characteristics of a copy” (Bachelard 1964, 49). Carpo follows with: “after movable type, it would be possible to transmit images as well as building plans faithfully” (Carpo 1998, 165). The representational two-dimensional embedding diagram of a three-dimensional space flattens the image and renders the perception of the space untrustworthy, as though this were a mere blueprint or illustration; A three-dimensional analogue does not necessarily have to exist within the narrative. XXX Truant must rely on the trustworthiness of the Zampanò who he is transcribing, or else he is only transcribing fiction into more fiction[3] rather than finding the truth at the heart of the house and The Navidson Record. Furthermore, given the psychological state of almost all characters involved at all levels of narrative, it could be that the inability to trust the space in which they inhabit is a condition of the narrowing the house’s representation from three- to two-dimensions. This could be one of the reasons for the uncanny psychosis that further drives the characters, namely Navidson, to their own insanity in exploring the depths of nothingness in “Footnote 144.” The footnote is a written “espacement” filled by one voice with what is not there for another: “we can no longer question its meaning except by falling short of it, within the network of values which it has in practice put into question.” (Derrida 1992, 112)

The grid is certainly one of the most significant features of Danielewski’s House of Leaves because the construction of the text, enabled by its graphic modularity, is of great concern to all authors. However, to understand the horror culminating through the shadows in the house, the reader must understand the darkness underneath the singular image in the grid to get to the darkness that comes in the turning of the page and losing sight of familiar and stable surfaces, pages, and walls. Therefore, one must now consider “Footnote 144” instead as in its series and the typographical manifestation of the expanding and contracting hallway that appears suddenly in the Navidson’s family room (Danielewski 2000, 57). In exploring the caesurae and how they manifest on Navidson’s screen as well as the occurring phenomenon in turning the page, the reader can sense but not quite identify the uncomfortable fear in the shadow of a gap.

Almost exactly as the hallway appeared in the distracted caesura between two discrete moments of Will Navidson’s otherwise avid, detail-oriented attention to the house, “Footnote 144” appears somewhere in the moment of being between two pages. Like the motion-sensing camera deactivated and then reactivated a moment later that just missed capturing the closet’s appearance, the phenomenon of mysterious change transpires within the darkness of that in between space. Such is the sensation of turning the page when the readers who are accustomed to the predictable, left-to-right motion experience instead discover an isolated square of text, fortified with a thin, blue line.

I mentioned the textual substance transcribed within that frame, but I have not mentioned yet that, due to its placement in The Navidson Record, it is a space captured by Navidson.[4] Trying to illuminate the dark, boundless housescape, he moves through the hallway not catching light and therefore not catching image. Importanly, in most of his explorations into the hallway, Navidson uses a 16-mm camera, and the reader has reason to believe this is the apparatus that attempted to capture that impenetrable space.

First, I must illustrate in my own words the first scene of the mysterious closet’s appearance between the bedrooms: After the Navidson family returns from a weekend trip to Seattle, they are indeed shocked but more baffled to find a closet and door mysteriously appear between the children’s and parent’s bedrooms. After checking the motion-activated camera footage installed in many locations around the house, there is no visual evidence of intrusion, but the index of one remains—the door. They revisit the motion sensor tapes. After the last family member exits the front door and the last door to the house is closed, the screen turns black, and a short moment of innocent rests between two mechanically alerted frames. Only a brief moment lapses until the entrance of the family through the door activates the camera, illuminating an unwelcomed and unaccounted for closet door between the parents’ and children’s bedrooms: an “atypical horror” (Danielewski 2000, 24) and a physical, temporal caesura between two frames. This “spatial violation” (ibid) threatens the solitude promised with the armament of high-definition cameras Navidson originally had in mind when conducting the family’s move in a documentary in the first place.  Bachelard writes, “[i]n this dynamic rivalry between house and universe, we are far removed from any reference to simple geometrical forms. A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometric space” (Bachelard 1964, 47).

In light (or lack thereof) of this new addition to the film, viewing the “Footnote 144” as a series separated by caesuric page turning, one must understand the text describes the nothingness that transpires while Navidson explores the hallway. Again, the quick succession of celluloid frames would not be able to catch any light necessary for illuminating the images on the film. Derrida suggests, “as the page folds in upon itself, one will never be able to decide if white [or in this case, black] signified something, or signifies only, or in addition, the space of writing itself” (Derrida 1992, 115-16). Furthermore, “a text is made to do without references . . . to the thing itself[;] . . . nothing except its disappearance. This disappearance is actively inscribed, it is not an accident of the text, it is rather its nature; it marks the signature of an unceasing omission,” (Derrida 1992, 113). For Navidson, the expedition’s resulting artifact would be nothing but blacked-out film stills and inescapable darkness between frames that haunts his home; and for the reader, twenty-five boxes of saturated, black text.

Analogously, Eadweard Muybridge’s studies on animal locomotion recorded in several shots the fluent movement of a horse. Kittler describes the process of capturing these images, “Racehorses and sprinters dashed past the individually and sequentially positioned cameras, whose shutters were triggered successfully by an electromagnetic device . . . 1 millisecond for every 40 milliseconds” (Kittler 1999, 116).

Though not a moving image, when flipped through quickly or placed side to side, the discrete moments in Muybridge’s series could certainly generate the illusion of continuous motion. To do something similar with the text of House of Leaves would require cutting and pasting together the succession of twenty-five frames side by side. Obviously one would not have the same sensory experience because reading is a completely different process; this would generate a similar experience projected only in the imaginative mind. Conversely, Kittler states,

“’Discourse,’ Foucault wrote when he introduced such caesuras into historical methodology itself, ‘is snatched from the law of development and established in a display of fixed images disappearing in turn, do not constitute either movement, time, or history.” (Kittler 1999, 117)

I agree in that they do not constitute movement itself—the images within the frames are stagnant and only trick the eye when viewed quickly and chronologically. Moreover, because the lack of imagery and thus sense of space and kinesthetics, I must rule out that the footnote generates the illusion of movement as well. Instead, I argue that it is rather a delusion of movement: the lack of visually and, depending how deep in the hallway and its capacity to generate echoes, auditory stimulation would induce in the explorers of that space delusions of movement while remaining still. In other words, the motion can be wrongly sensed when the explorer is still, due to the lack of a relative sense of space from one moment to another. Therefore, the explorer may sense he or she is moving within the black space of the hallway, even while he or she remains still. There is not necessarily movement within that space because there is no sense of chronological or spatial relatively. Danielewski suggests he had taken this into consideration when plotting out the book: “I’ve never talked to anyone who didn’t feel a sense of elation when they’d read [House of Leaves], say, 80 pages in an hour, because something was moving quickly—or expressed some sort of frustration because it took them an hour to read ten pages” (Sims 2000). The phenomena of movement through the hallway, film, and book are illusions or delusions contingent upon the medium’s capacity to leave in and sometimes highlight the black gaps; “as if time existed only in the vacant moment of rupture, in that white, paradoxically atemporal crack in which one sudden formulation replaces another” (Foucault 1972, 166).

I’ve mentioned before that Navidson arms his house with video cameras and other audiovisual equipment in the hopes to protect his family from the shadowed corners of his home. When spatial infractions eventually occur, he is already armed with his weapons. Paul Virilio confronts Navidson’s anger, though ultimately fear, of the spatial and temporal caesura with aggression: “Combat here is a game in which all the instruments take part in the saturation of space” (Virilio 1989, 25). This is to say that to fortify one’s house with a weapon of choice, in this case of the audio-visual variety, there is always already the promise of threat within the space of a home. Jules-Etienne Marey’s chrono-photgraphic rifle is a tool that is appropriate use in the face of Navidson’s fear within the invading space. In one hand gesture, the operator can trigger both the shutter and the weapon, and “for men at war, the function of the weapon is the function of the eye” (ibid., 26). Already on the defensive, Navidson’s exploration of the shadows is ultimately driven by fear of the space itself. The immediate and rapid accumulation of obsessive documentation is narrationally and typographically treated by Danielewski, also affected by the horror of empty space on the page and within the walls. “If the house were indeed the product of psychological agonies, it would have to be the collective product of every inhabitant’s agonies” (Danielewski 2000, 21), which I suspect would have included the ultimate author creating the space. If indeed, “[t]he house remodels man” (Bachelard 1964, 47), Navidson, Zampanò, Truant, and Danielewski are reinforced in through the blank of empty spaces.


[1] By “objective expectations” I mean the characteristics of the book as an object and the phenomena we expect out of this object when we approach it.

[2] Not to be confused, Truant’s House of Leaves is on an entirely different ontological level than Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which will be discussed throughout this paper. Additionally, The Navidson Record is Zampanò’s commentary and loose transcription of the events in the various documentaries Will Navidson produces as he moves his family into the house—the home being the subject upon which all layers of the book revolve.

[3] Though later, Truant finds that the reality and truth is not what matters, but rather Truant’s journey is more in the act of drafting as a means of psychological therapy. Danielewski’s reader knows immediately the entire Navidson story is fabricated: Zampanò was blind and there were no such documentaries to be seen by the author.

[4] Due to the atemporal, non-linearity of the ephemeral contents of Navidson Record, Danielewski is ambiguous with the timeline of events in this chapter; it is unclear, and I think irrelevant, to discern when exactly Navidson took the footage of the hallway. Also, seeing as “Footnote 144”is placed in the chapter widely nicknamed in the Mark Z. Daniewlewski online forum as “The Labyrinth” chapter, I reason Danielewki’s kludge-y portrayal of time is on purpose anyway.



Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

Benzon, Kiki. “Revolution 2: An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski.” Electronic Book Review, May 20, 2007.

Carpo, Mario. “The Making of the Typical Architect.” In Paper Palaces: The Rise of the Renaissance Architectural Treatise, edited by Vaughan Hart and Peter Hicks. New Haven: Yale, 1998.

Chrisofides, C. G. “Bachelard’s Aesthetics.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20, no. 3 (1962): 263–271.

Cottrell, Sophie. “Conversation with Mark Danielewski.” <boldtype>, 2000.

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.

Derrida, Jacques, Glas, Paris: Editions Galilée, 1974.

Derrida, Jacques. “Mallarmé.” In Acts of Literature. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Dworkin, Craig, “Textual Prosthesis,” in Comparative Literature, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Gudino, Rod. “The Fearful Symmetry of House of Leaves.” Rue Morgue, October 2000.

Hansen, Mark B. N., “The Digital Topography of Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’,” in Contemporary Literature, 2004.

Hayles, N. Katherine, “Inhabiting House of Leaves” in Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

Kittler, Friedrich. “Film.” In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Kittler, Friedrich. “Perspective and the Book.” Grey Room no. 5 (2001): 38–53.

Lawrence, Amy. “Counterfeit Motion: The Animated Films of Eadweard Muybridge.” University of California Press 57, no. 2 (2004): 15–25.

McCaffery, Larry, Sinda Gregory, “Haunted House—An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski,” in Critique, 2003.

Perelman, Bob, “Parataxis and Narrative: The New Sentence in Theory and Practice,” in American Literature, 1993.

Rancière, Jacques. “The Surface of Design.” In The Future of the Image, translated by Gregory Elliott. New York: Verso, 2009.

Sims, Michael. “Building a House of Leaves: An Interview with Mark Danielewski.” BookPage, March 2000.

Solnit, Rebecca. Motion Studies: Time, Space, and Eadweard Muybridge. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003.

VanDerWerff, Todd. “House Of Leaves Author Mark Z. Danielewski on His New Book and Sewing Paper.” A. V. Club, October 16, 2012.,86716/.

Virillio, Paul. “Cinema Isn’t I See, It’s I Fly.” In War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, translated by Patrick Camiller. London: Verso, 1989.

Williamson, Jack. “The Grid: History, Use, and Meaning.” Design Issues 3, no. 2 (1986): 15–30.