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  • The Binding Problem
  • Kiki Benzon (bio)
House of Leaves. Mark Z. Danielewski. Pantheon Books. 736 pages; cloth, $50.00; paper, $19.95.

A literary text is processed in the brain like any other complex stimulus: mysteriously. While particular types of sensory input tend to be processed in specific regions of the brain—the cerebellum specializes in motion perception, for example, and the amygdala and hippocampus are implicated in emotional memory—our engagement with objects and spaces is seldom, if ever, the product of a single sensory or cognitive process. The information required to carry out a task like reading a book involves parallel interactions among large populations of neurons distributed throughout the nervous system. How can we discern a coherent and meaningful narrative in a short story or novel when, on the neuronal level, reading entails a set of events that occur in different parts of the brain—from object perception in the ventral visual stream to language comprehension in Broca's area, to working memory in the prefrontal cortex? In neuroscience and the philosophy of mind, the means by which distributed processes result in a unified experience is referred to as the binding problem: one's perspective or consciousness of events seems to be an integrated whole, but no one physiological structure can be identified as the production site for this unified experience. Whatever mechanism the brain employs to organize perceptual, cognitive, and motor information must be flexible and fast, with a large combinatorial capacity and the ability to group many parallel inputs simultaneously.

Kay Young and Jeffrey L. Saver have suggested that the brain "narratively organizes information"; Jerome Bruner famously defined narrative as a "form not only of representing but of constituting reality." Indeed, the narrative form integrates and prioritizes information, adapting to new inputs over time towards the synthesis of a consecutive and logical arrangement. Richard Bjornson argues that "the same mental operations which allow people to make sense of their physical environments are also called upon when they seek to understand the verbal universes they encounter in literary texts." In the same way that our brains coordinate and bind sensory data, the literary narrative refines and organizes a swell of events and spaces both imagined and real. Narratives in novels and brains alike emerge from a multitude of discrete elements, but they cannot be reduced to these elements without ceasing to make sense as narratives. In reading a novel, as Charles Taylor observes, "we are trying to establish a reading for the whole text, and for this we appeal to readings of its partial expressions"; when experiencing a phenomenon in the world, Ann Treisman explains, "we must specify not only its part and properties, but also how those parts and properties are combined."

In a sense, every literary narrative integrates and prioritizes information. Reading a narrative involves yet another cycle of integration and prioritization, where the reader combines syntactical and semantic information on the page with her own idea and memories to generate a concept of the story's meaning. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is an interesting text to consider in terms of the binding potential of narrative because its story is achieved not through the parsing and disambiguation of information but, rather, through sustained ambiguity and information excess. A hefty, typographically diverse text, House of Leaves is an academic-cum-biographical report about a physically impossible house, whose shifting and seemingly infinite interior becomes a point of obsession for documentary filmmaker Will Navidson. The novel, in part, consists of the quasi-scholarly accounts of a blind Los Angeleno man, Zampanò, who spends decades cobbling together documentation related to Navidson and company's expeditions into the amorphous depths of the house. Zampanò's scraps and jottings are in turn elaborated upon by Johnny Truant, a down-and-out Gen-Xer and tattoo-parlor employee, who tries to make sense of the late Zampanò's giant and disorganized manuscript. A final narrative layer is supplied by Truant's mother, Pelafina, who, incarcerated in a psychiatric institution, sends her son encrypted letters about their tragic family history and the horrors of life at the hospital. The three narratives are crudely combined...


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