Architectural Trauma: Space and the Trauma of Postmodernism


Postmodernism is characterised by an incredulity towards meta narratives (Lyotard), that is, a distrust of any large scale explanation of how the world works such as history or religion. Postmodernist literature and in particular, postmodernist trauma narratives, seek to point out that these dominant entities of our way of life that we perceive to be ‘natural’ are in fact ‘cultural’ and therefore artificial (Hutcheon). The reason this idea connects with trauma narratives is that this postmodernist view of discourses is a type of trauma itself, that is, the trauma of postmodernism, because it undermines our previously held certainties of how the world works and inspires, according to Vickroy, a loss of confidence in the social and cultural structures that are supposed to create order and safety.

This obliteration of our everyday assumptions about reality (Hayles) is frequently a focus in postmodernist texts and something I have noticed is that often it is represented by what I call a symbolic space or representative construction at the centre of the text. Often a text can feature a piece of architecture such as a room or building that is representative of the theme of the narrative as a whole. John Barth’s ‘Lost in the Funhouse’, for instance, is a metafictional short story and at the end of the story, the protagonist goes into a funhouse, that is, a hall of mirrors, so this is a space that literally reflects back onto itself and is thereby symbolic of the story’s construction because the story is metafictional and also commenting on itself. My suggestion is that we can take this idea of symbolic spaces and apply it to texts that deal with the trauma of postmodernism. Both Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, for example, feature an architectural space in which the structures we place on the world or large scale explanations of it such as language, history and time seem to disappear thereby representing the trauma of postmodernism and the increasing decline or ‘disappearance’ of meta narratives.

In House of Leaves, for instance, this trauma of postmodernism is represented in the labyrinth at the centre of the house and in particular the scene where Navidson enters the it and encounters a ‘grotesque vision of absence’ (464). All of the structures and discourses one uses to make sense of the world such as time, space, history, geography and even gravity, literally start to disappear from the ‘space’ he has entered:

the window has vanished along with the room … All that remains is … darkness … Navidson’s watch stopped functioning … he no longer cares about the meaning of a minute or even a week … The first flare drops straight down … never reaching the bottom … he is slowly becoming more disorientated … Is he floating, falling or rising? Is he right side up, upside down or on his right side? … the questions are sadly irrelevant. (464-465)

The Black Lodge in Twin Peaks is similarly representative of the trauma of postmodernism. When Dale Cooper enters this space, all structures used to make sense of the world are likewise non-existent. Rational language does not occur, for example, as the figures Cooper encounters here speak backwards, utter nonsensical phrases and make illegible gestures. This is particularly evident in the third episode of the series, when we are introduced to this bizarre space:

Navigation and any sense of direction is similarly pointless. In the series finale, Cooper returns to the Black Lodge and wandering this space, he finds himself continuously returning to the same room no matter which direction he takes. A sense of time is also dissolved here in that Cooper enters the Black Lodge in the final episode of the series yet in the prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, we learn that he is there at that moment even though it apparently happens much later on in the series.

Another text that represents the trauma of postmodernism through a particular space is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumyia. In line with films such as The Matrix, the protagonist comes to realize that his everyday assumptions about reality are false when he is informed that one of his classmates, Haruhi Suzumyia, is God and has the ability to literally shape and rewrite the world as we know it and this is represented in the series by closed space, that is, an alternate reality created when Haruhi becomes angry or bored. This closed space is grey in appearance and empty and in this area, Haruhi can permanently alter reality so all of the discourses used to make sense of the world can either be rewritten or eradicated completely. This idea is fully explained in this scene from the series:

And in this scene, the characters enter closed space:

While Haruhi Suzumyia is not necessarily a trauma narrative, however, the trauma of postmodernism, as we can see in these scenes, is nevertheless evident. The trauma of postmodernism can be incorporated into current sci-fi, fantasy or horror because a more contemporary idea of something frightening is more often the fear of nothing rather than something, the fear of reality being destroyed rather than something unknown disrupting it and ultimately, that what we think we know of reality is merely a construction.


For further examples of Haruhi Suzumyia‘s postmodernist themes and techniques, see here:

An article that discusses House of Leaves and reality:


Barth, John. Lost in the Funhouse. New York: Doubleday, 1968. Print.

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. Doubleday: New York, 2000. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Leys, Ruth. Trauma: A Genealogy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester U.P., 1983. Print.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumyia. Dir. Tatsuya Ishihara. Kyoto Animation, 2009. Anime.

Twin Peaks. Dir. David Lynch. CBS Television Distribution, 1990-1991. Television.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Dir. David Lynch. New Line Cinema, 1992. Film.

Vickroy, Laurie. Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002. Print.


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