By Katherine Franco
Modernism in a post-internet age: celebrating the centenary of Ulysses.
One afternoon almost 100 years after the publication of Ulysses in 1922, I asked myself two questions.
1. If, every time I walk along a gravel path, I see James Joyce’s words ‘Crush, crack, crick, crick,’ in the centre of the 31st page of my edition of Ulysses, what does that mean for me and my experience of the world?
2. If, when I tilt my head up at the trees, the movement of the leaves resembles jumpy pixels on my laptop screen, what does that mean for me and my experience of the world?
I knew these questions had something to do with mediation and missing out. They left me wondering if I was detached from life, in my inability to experience the sky and ground as themselves. Then I felt unreasonable in my fetish for the sky and ground. I knew I should feel disappointed when those leaves glitched. Yet I was also delighted. I was a proud post-internet subject, animated by these anxieties. This qualm, however, was not specific to the post-internet era. It had something to do with a longstanding relationship between life and media, the sort of thing on which James Joyce fixated. In 2022, Ulysses’s centenary calls for a celebration of Joyce’s novel as well as a reminder that some of the central questions of internet studies predate the internet.
These questions ran through my head from January through May last year as I spent each Saturday afternoon in a virtual Ulysses reading group. Run by two Oxford undergrads, our reading group would read and discuss six to ten pages of Ulysses over Zoom for nearly three hours each week. The virtual form was born out of pandemic necessity, yet the medium became an almost perfect forum for Joyce: hypertextual, hypermedial, transnational, transtemporal. There were seven or so members, each with their own library and spatiotemporal contribution. I watched us annotate one another’s speech as we spoke it in the Zoom chat box: ‘Shouts rang shrill from the boy’s playfield and a whirring whistle,’ read a friend as I looked above the laptop screen and overheard shouts from my own ‘open window startling evening in the quadrangle’. A cat meowed in my frame, which suddenly corresponded to the passage at the start of ‘Calypso’, a kind of sonic annotation. I had read Ulysses twice before, but it was during the reading group that I realised the Joycean word can take a lifetime to read –– if you let it run free. Jeri Johnson once said that Joyce, in his attention to the unit of the word, wrote as a poet despite his novel form. And it was true: once we began to pick at one of Joyce’s words, we couldn’t stop. The ideal reader of Ulysses’s notoriously difficult ‘Oxen of the Sun’ episode should have ‘pages of notes, structured like a database and navigated by a lightning-fast Boolean search,’ according to James F. Lowe. Our Joyce group served as a living version of this vision.
Reading is not a solitary experience. It is a historical and social practice. You, on the page, spoke. I received your language and answered back, whether through close reading or modifying the way I spoke to people in my life. I took your word ‘ineluctable’ and I brought it into a room and sounded it among other people. The Zoom group made this practice more explicitly social, even while I remained alone in my room with book in hand. ‘Agenbite of inwit’ –– an obscure medieval allusion in the novel –– was rendered uncomplicated when a member of our group pulled down a volume of medieval philology from her shelf and defined it for us aloud. (Sometimes I substitute ‘agenbyte’ in good post-internet practice.) I no longer found myself flipping back and forth between Joyce’s text and my copy of Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated –– a seven-hundred-page volume of line-by-line annotations to Ulysses –– but could take comfort in our live, imperfect database. Anyone could show up to the text, without time or space for readerly anxiety, in this hypermediated communal state.
Hypertext is a bad term. It is anachronistic, old fashioned, and irrelevant. Or so I am often told. Sometimes, I worry my attraction to the term is grossly Joycean. By which I mean I derive my interest in ‘hypertext’ by way of the term’s possible, rather than typical, usages. I know I love the word itself: hypertext. As in, a text that leaves me equal parts giddy and ragged. Hyper: over, above, beyond. A text I can’t put my finger on. A text that leaves you skittish. A term generated by Ted Nelson in the late 1960s and popularised in 1990s media studies, ‘hypertext’ refers to the cross-referential nature of information technology. Hypertext theory proposes that all digital texts produce multi-directional modes of meaning-making, refusing a linear navigation of a text. Ulysses’s referential network is materialised in the form of Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated. To flip through Ulysses Annotated alone is an interesting hypertextual exercise. It’s almost as if you threw a dinner party but excluded the host: a net of relations left with a ghost of its locus. When you exclude Ulysses from its hypertextual network, you’re left with a history of Western literature, philosophy, and history.
The glorious thing about Ulysses is not that it declares itself the grand paradigm of hypertext, despite its literary reputation as such, but instead that it reminds us of the hypertextual nature of every text. After all, a hypertextual reading practice is characterised by intertextuality, multilinearity, annotation, and cross-referentiality –– all techniques which precede the internet and Joyce’s oeuvre. I’m often uncomfortable with claims that Ulysses offered a first or eminent exploration of hypermedia and hypertext in literature, since the Joycean project is more often concerned with recognising rather than generating forms in the world. You’re not supposed to just fall in love with Joyce’s candy wrappers on the Liffey, but see your own candy wrappers as sacred. Yet it is specifically Joyce who has a longstanding connection to digital humanities and cyberculture. Jacques Derrida noted, ‘you can say nothing that is not programmed on this 1000th generation computer –– Ulysses, Finnegans Wake –– beside which the current technology of our computers and micro-computerfied archives and translating machines remain a bricolage of a prehistoric child’s toys’. He later referred to the Wake as ‘joyceware’. As we celebrate Ulysses’s centenary this year, we are keenly aware of Joyce’s place in 20th century modernism, but I think of him in a post-internet context thanks to the long-running subfield of Joyce and hypertextual studies. Joycean digital endeavours, even if some lie defunct on archived WayBack Machine links, abound.
Our reading group was not exactly making something. Other than our Zoom link, we had almost no digital evidence to outlast ourselves. Perhaps that was better: we were simply doing. Late Joyce scholar Michael Groden’s inaugural ‘Flying by the Net: James Joyce in Cyberspace’, a column on Joyce studies and cyberspace, enumerates digital resources for Joyce study. (Including links to the annual James Joyce Ramble in Massachusetts; or Interactive Love Letters, a site which generates an email love letter with your choice of quotation, including one from Ulysses’s ‘Penelope’ episode.) In looking over Groden’s useful –– and at this point, twenty-five years following its publication, wonderfully archaic –– list, I knew our reading group was neither stationary nor self-proclaimed enough to make this sort of list. That was why I loved it: it never attained a project-like status, nor was intended to be for or by ‘Joyceans’. It meandered. It lacked structure and regularity. It glitched, literally. Hypertext mimics the associative and intertextual quality of human consciousness, but our group’s spoken associative and intertextual leaps mimicked hypertextuality. Our project couldn’t die since it was never born in an official or discernible sense; it just lived. It was localized –– although on what basis I couldn’t tell you, given I sat in the States while others were scattered across all parts of England. Stephen declares, ‘I will see if I can see’. Ulysses often feels like, I will read to see if I can read. I don’t simply refer to the reading of this novel. I mean it demands one sees how far they can read, or how far a reading practice can extend. Sometimes, I felt we pressed against a limit.
Central to hypermedia is the negotiation of distraction and attention. Ulysses is notoriously insurmountable; however, it’s not always for its length or ‘difficulty’, but rather that one wants to concentrate on each word so intensely it becomes a distraction. Reading Ulysses for the first time in 2019, I never knew whether to read in noise or silence, while wide awake or a bit dulled so as to let my mind go. I did not want to annotate, but I also had to do something with my hands. Every few pages of the penultimate ‘Ithaca’ episode, I walked out of a coffee shop to catch my breath, shaking out my legs on the street corner so that I could return to the text for more. That’s the irony of a hypertext: its referentiality and ‘hyper’ status demand distraction while simultaneously commanding fixed attention. My copy of Ulysses ends with a scrawled crossing-out over a spot where I attempted to make one final note on the text. The scribble is probably as useful as anything I could have made. And inevitable: not some triumphant flag on the moon but a reminder of any reading practice’s perpetually unfinished status.
Reading Ulysses, I always feel like modernist poet Marianne Moore’s ‘irascible, / fastidious, stubborn undisciplined zebra’: one becomes fastidious and stubborn in their commitment to the novel. But one is also necessarily, hopefully, undisciplined. I want to urge this irascible, fastidious, stubborn, undisciplined reading practice –– and suggest that our Zoom form, with its unregulated and non-academic context, epitomised that vision. If you love the world enough, Joyce suggests, you’ll take it upon yourself to describe it in as many words and styles as possible. If you love the way water runs, you’ll enquire after all of its representations (as he famously does in ‘Ithaca’). If you love reading enough, you’ll take up all and any reading practices. Demanding that of oneself and others is a commitment to attention in the face of a world that rarely wants you to attend to books and people. When I, and Joyce, refer to attention, I don’t think we mean a world free of distraction. I think I mean we must let our eyes blur and then return to the source for more.
Joyce loved parallax: that idea that an object, when viewed from every position, appears different. For almost three years, I mistook Joycean parallax for doubleness or doubled sight. My misguidedness is forgivable, given the first mention of ‘parallax’ in the novel is Leopold Bloom’s similar declaration: ‘Parallax. I never exactly understood. There’s a priest. Could ask him.’ I thought parallax was a declaration of bothness. Rather than posing an optical dialectic, its etymology instead emphasises the act of alternating itself. (Parallaxis: to change, to alternate.) In other words, parallax is not about the view at which you land but instead the state of alternating created by a Joycean parallactic project. It’s about the flip of the page itself. As David Weir, author of James Joyce and the Art of Mediation, suggests, ‘Joyce’s art involves the constant negotiation of these inner and outer worlds, but that negotiation need not result in resolution.’ Parallax is about forgiving yourself for alternating, a reminder that alternation is a requisite for life. You don’t have to keep your eyes open, or fixed in one modality, to access the ‘ineluctable modality of the visible’. (After all, Joyce writes, ‘Shut your eyes and see.’) You’re forgiven if the stars remind you of a YouTube video. You can listen to the Slits beside an eleventh-century monastery, if you want. Post-punk doesn’t distract you from history, it just slants it.
If Ulysses’s thesis goes something like, the best discourse is all discourses, then the best reading practice is perhaps to read as many ways as possible. A three-month-long slow reading; a reading of every printed edition; scrolling through textual fragments via Ulysses’s Twitter bot; performing formalist and historicist readings; or examining the facsimiles and fair copies via the James Joyce Digital Archive. It involves generating watercolour adaptations of the novel’s famous passage on water; keeping the open access Project Gutenberg version of Ulysses bookmarked on one’s laptop and flipping through sections at random; reading aloud to a laptop screen of people; and texting fragments from Ulysses on Stephen Dedalus’s late mother to one’s own mother. That’s parallax, I think. That’s a parallactic reading practice. It might appear unattractive and mad and make for an odd life, but it’s parallax. It’s involuntary, too. The more you live, the more you know a text: the accumulation of gravel paths is, for better or for worse, an accumulation of readings of ‘Proteus’ with which I will engage. A gravel path, Joyce understood, is a technology for textual engagement.
To read Ulysses is to make a pact to fail. I mean to say: in reading Ulysses, one must forgive oneself for failing. In this failure lies evidence of a persistence and commitment to language, which feels far from failure, anyway. When I open Ulysses, I take something off –– a thing that feels like ego. I read Ulysses because it’s an exercise in wrongness. Ulysses’s centenary should be a reminder to read, the world and word alike, with scrutiny and without shame. I read to meet those ‘roguewords, tough nuggets patter in their pockets’. You’re meant to gnaw on these nuggets for decades. They have texture. If they were easier, they –– and we –– could not leap as high.
Katherine Franco reads for an MSt in English at Mansfield College. She is working towards a theory towards a theory.
Art by Ben Beechener.
With gratitude to Leilah Greening and Orna Rifkin for their organisation and facilitation of our reading group.