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Haunted House Music: the living room

December 31, 2007

I was trying to suggest recently that the kitchen is the room where expressionism does voice impressions of realism. Let’s presume that the living room is more free of signifiers of “realness”, of the kitchen-sink sort.

Take an example associated with kitchen sink realism — Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. After the death of Colin Smith’s father, his family spend their £500 bereavement package on new objects, with which to furnish their living room. Tony Richardson’s film of the story visualises the transformation of the Smith family’s little home, a transformation which is completed with the arrival of a television. Suddenly, through their living room, the family can enter other realms, other worlds: America is in houses in Nottingham, and, as Colin Smith says in Sillitoe’s story, “the telly had shown us how much more there was in the world to buy when we’d looked in shop windows … we used to cock our noses at things in shops that didn’t move, but suddenly we saw their real value because they jumped and glittered around the screen.” The idea that I want to take from Sillitoe’s critique of consumer culture is this: that the television is a quasi-object, but more importantly, has the effect of animating other objects. The movement of objects on a screen causes the movement of three-dimensional objects. The object world is agitated, made to dance according to this sort of magic capitalism. The living room is the stage on which this choreography of objects is performed.

The living room is a theatre. All of its objects — whether they be televisions and home cinemas, or inanimate knick-knacks, personal artifacts, photos and ornaments — are part of a giant, connected home entertainment system that is the room itself. And all theatres are ways of entering new and unknown realms; the living room is really a departure lounge, a place where you sit and wait to be taken somewhere else.

Of course, this transformative possibilities of the domestic space don’t have to depend of modernity’s technologies (although they help). The animation of the object-world (let’s just call it animism and be done with it) in Sillitoe’s story is, understandably, entirely a matter of economic materialism. Other minds in other ages and other places have imagined a domestic fetishism that is entirely aesthetic.


I’ve said before, and will probably say again, that À rebours by J.-K. Huysmans, despite (or because of) being written in 1884, is the first novel about the digital age. The book is a meticulous description of the hermetically decadent existence of Des Esseintes, who forsakes Parisian society in favour of existing in isolation in the meticulously-planned aesthetic environment of his own home. A famous passage involves Des Esseintes deciding, on a whim, to journey to London in pursuit of imagined Dickensian atmospheres — just before boarding the boat, Des Esseintes decides to simply go home, because without even travelling he has “seen and felt all that I wanted to feel … It would be madness to risk spoiling such unforgettable experiences by a clumsy change of locality.” Des Esseintes’s decision is a wonderful answer to clumsy cosmopolitans those who’d go off bothering the world with backpacking; instead, he is the armchair (and therefore unobtrusive, weirdly provincial) cosmopolitan familiar to the digital age. Of course, weak-nerved Des Esseintes is also sick beyond all help. There is a very special strain of travel-sickness that is the result of too many nights spent in one’s own living room.

Des Esseintes’ home — equipped with means to synaesthetic delights such as the “taste organ”, an instrument filled with various liqueurs on which various taste “pieces” can be played — is a harbinger of digital domesticity; but this hermetically sealed home is a closed circuit. I was going to say that Des Esseintes is the creator of his own environment but, more than that, he is his own envionment. The failure of his project begins when he overdoses on specially-mixed perfumes and has to throw open a window. The modern living room, through windows real or virtual, is a similarly permeable space.

On the subject of permeability: the “permeable narrator” is a concept introduced by Brian Richardson in his book Unnatural Voices: Extreme Narration in Modern and Contemporary Fiction. Using Beckett’s The Unnameable as an example, Richardson defines the permeable narrator as being the result of “the uncanny and inexplicable intrusion of the voice of another within the narrator’s consciousness”. Such a narrator is a psychological equivalent of the spatial intrusion of outside “voices” into the domestic environment. An example from narrative that I’d give to show this is Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Being a third-person narrative, this is a more complicated example than Beckett’s monologues. What interests me here, though, is the way that voices — televisual voices, media voices, advertising voices — intrude into Jack Gladney’s family home. This is the white noise that flickers in and out of the narrative as interference or static — domestically set dialogue between characters is punctuated by speaking parts given to electrical appliances: “the television said…”


Are these voices the sound of the living room itself (since the television is a domestic object) or are they intrusions from outside?  Do televisions and radios, or high-speed  internet connections, somehow de-territorialize the domestic sphere?  John Cage’s 1940 piece Living Room Music liberated the noise of household objects — here are some instructions from the score:

Any household objects or architectural elements may be used … magazines, newpaper … table … furniture …. largish books … floor, wall, door … Do not use conventional beaters.

This is an early example of Cage’s career-long animistic engagement with the object.  Frances Dyson, in an essay on Cage, has asked what happens to this piece when “household object” is extended to include the “quasi-object technological sound-sources” in a room.

But to go all the way back to Sillitoe and the Nottingham living room in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner: a favourite game (superbly included in the film version) of Colin Smith and his pal is to silence the television during the “improving” post-war speeches of Tory politicians.  Watching the politician gesticulating self-importantly onscreen, unaccompanied by any sound, the lads collapse into laughter.  They have guarded their domestic sound-space against intrusion, simply by use of the volume control.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Heidi Barz permalink
    May 14, 2009 3:48 pm


    I am a student from Germany,

    I just found your article concerning Huysmans “A Rebours” and because I have to write a thesis statement and a report about Des Esseintes Library I am very interested in the Painting you have chosen to underline your article.

    I would be interested in the artist who painted it and the title.

    Thanks a lot

    Yours sincere,

    Heidi Barz

  2. May 14, 2009 4:53 pm

    Hello Heidi,

    Do you mean the illustration to this post — — ?

    The picture is a woodcut to illustrate the 1931 edition of the novel (reproduction found online). The artist is Arthur Zeidenburg, and a number of his illustrations are found here:

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