A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. -William Carlos Williams The Wedge, 1944

Code took over in Un Coup de Des by Stephane Mallarme.  Code also took over on page 907 of The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein.  Code also took over as Ezra Pound revised “Ur-Canto I” into “Canto II”.  Code also took over as James Joyce composed the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses, and was really going by 1939 when he completed Finnegans Wake.  Looking back to these texts using contemporary definitions of code, I argue that these examples from literature represent a shift in the uses and applications of language.  Rather than a frictionless mode of expressing authorial interiority, language for these authors became a non-human thing and was accompanied by affordances, resistance, and autonomous agency.  These authors banished the human from language and the consequences of this shift are still being felt in fields such as object oriented ontology, digital media, the poetics of code, and code poetry.

Far from suggesting I am discovering something about modernism, I am convinced that this was a fundamental, but as yet unexplored, ambition of the modernist authors themselves.  Stein, Pound, Joyce and others deliberately removed their simulated consciousness from the text in order to explore the potential language has for animating itself, working independently of the authors that put it into motion, that is, behaving like a machine made out of words.

In developing my definition of code in preparation to apply it to print texts, I have been reading as widely as possible in software studies, critical code studies, information theory, and so far have had my understanding of these fields seismically shifted on several occasions.  I’ve also discovered that my goals are somewhat different than thinkers in these fields.  As much as I want to join literary and media studies through shared terms of inquiry, my interest is not directed toward interpreting or reading code in all the digital contexts in which it appears.  Instead, I seek to locate those areas where writing appearing in literary texts exhibit the characteristics we have seen formalized and deployed in code and programming.  In other words, like my previous project on databases, I argue that poets and novelists were experimenting with language in ways that anticipate code and programming long before the rise of digital media.

While I’m sure taking this line runs me afoul of more techno-determinist schools of media studies–after all, media determine our situation–I persist in thinking that many Anglophone modernist and post WWII and contemporary authors, particularly American poets, use language in ways that can be illuminated by comparison with code, programming, or software.  Naturally, I am far from the first person to make this argument.  Entire books, journals, and webpages are dedicated to exploring code or the poetics of code, and the coded or programmatic features of poetry.  Sites like Hypermedia Joyce Studies have laid the groundwork for studying Joyce in this light, and the Electronic Poetry Center at Buffalo represents a massive repository of poetry that in some sense exhibits the features of electronic media.

To these discussions, I can only hope to add a slightly different approach by starting with a rigorous definition of code which applies equally to its appearance in both literary texts and programmed digital media.  In order to do this, I start with more contemporary discussions of code because these poets and scholars are dealing with code as code, rather than code as literature or the proto-code that I seek to define in twentieth century literature.  That is to say, thinkers in critical code, software, or media studies are interacting with and attempting to define code as a genre unto itself without having to separate it from literary language, poetic form, or whatever else, and therefore have a clarified (and highly technical) understanding of what code is and how it works in the media we consume.

I favor the definition of code developed by poet and critic John Cayley in his article “The Code is not the Text (Unless it is the Text)”.  I prefer Cayley’s approach because he wants to separate code from other types of writing and define it taxonomically.  Cayley says,

[C]ode has its own structures, vocabularies and syntaxes; because it functions, typically, without being observed, perhaps even as a representative of secret workings, interiority, hidden process; because there are divisions and distinctions between what the code is and does, and what the language of the interface text is and does, and so on. … code and language require distinct strategies of reading.

Cayley doesn’t suggest that humans can’t read code (impregnably black-boxed code would be useless), but instead that there is something about code that makes it different from the language that humans read and speak.  As with every last thing on this planet it seems, there is almost certainly no absolute difference between code and the language humans use, but peeling apart the tiny strands of literary language requires being as precise as possible about the differences between the two.  Cayley frames this difference as one of rhetoric or mode of address:

Address to other, unusual reading processes – the machine itself, or particular human readers who have learned how systems read – implies the need for different persuasive strategies, different strategies for generating significance and affect. I mean that the rhetoric of writing in code must be distinct. Again, appeal to values of hybridity and mutual linguistic contamination (addressed to postmodern humans) threatens to conceal the emergence of new or less familiar rhetorical strategies.

Cayley identifies “persuasive strategies” unlike those traditionally associated with language.  Understanding code requires also understanding these alternative strategies, listening in the functions with the mind of the machine.  This is because code is not only, or even primarily, addressed to humans.  The audience code seeks to persuade–its rhetoric–is not the human reader, but the machine to which it relates instructions.  This approach separates Cayley from others because rather than study code alongside the other types of writing that appear with it (coder commentaries, cross-contamination with code poetry, etc.), he seeks to define what makes code distinct from other forms of language.

In a sense, when reading code, the human is overhearing a conversation between two other interlocutors.  I would argue that, as when reading code, highly difficult literary texts such as The Making of Americans, The Cantos, and Finnegans Wake, are not primarily addressed to humans and have another audience.  We as readers are eavesdropping on exchanges of information between other conversants, decoding or reverse engineering the exchange in order to follow the conversation.  But connecting Cayley’s definition of code to texts in print, the problem remains: in these texts there is no machine for the “code” to address.

For this reason, I have to further renovate Cayley’s definition of code, or at least the terms which surround it.  Cayley says code is defined by its rhetoric: it is code (and not just language) because it is addressed to a machine.  I am expanding the discussion of machines beyond computers to argue that all forms of writing are essentially machines.[1]  This allows me to expand my definition of code from one confined to computers, to one that applies to all kinds of textual media.  My definition of code:

Code is writing addressed to other writing

The question of writing as a physical act, as an extension beyond the interior reaches of human creativity is necessary and overlaps with truly fascinating theoretical discussions of what information actually is.  The act of forming, putting something into form, making an idea, thought, or image physical, in-forming, will have to be left to the side for now.  Instead, I’ll confine myself to discussing form, and formalism.  It is no accident that modernism, as a period of literary history, was fixated on form.  It is also no accident that Cayley, a code poet, is as well.  He says,

Serious formalism in literature was never just a matter of rhetorical flourish; it was inevitably, ineluctably, concerned with the materiality of language, and therefore with the affect and significance of language as such.

The insistence on language as material is important because it acknowledges that it always takes a form, but also because it exists outside and independently of the humans that speak and write it.

In my last post, I quoted from N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman who in their introduction to “Comparative Textual Media,” argue that the complexity of technical media, with their encoded, electrical, and latent but busy substrates, have made it more difficult to sustain the fantasy that authors (or creators of other kinds) are speaking directly to the consumers of that media.  The technicality of these media cut the site of creation from the site of consumption.  They also argue that the awareness of media initiated by this heightened sense of technicality prompts reappraisal of older media forms, particularly print.  Looking back at print texts through this electronic media prism, they suggest, allows us to reexamine how print functions as a medium dividing writer and reader.

I would like to situate this approach to print media within a much larger discourse in which has begun redrawing the boundaries between humans and the objects they interact with.  In his “Introduction” to his edited collection of essays titled, The Nonhuman Turn, Richard Grusin explains this shift:

Describing the nonhuman turn as a shift of attention, interest, or concern toward nonhumans keeps in mind the physicality and movement involved in the idea of the turn, how the nonhuman turn must be understood as an embodied turn toward the nonhuman world, including the nonhuman that is in all of us.  (loc281)

Grusin’s turn pairs well with Hayles’ and Pressman’s new view of print media because both call not for revolutions in philosophy or media and literary studies, but a careful attention to the subtle ways we have territorialized nonhuman objects as human.  This attention can change our understanding of things–like media–whose nonhumanness we have previously overlooked.  Grusin says,

To turn toward the nonhuman is not only to confront the nonhuman but to lose the traditional way of the human, to move aside so that other nonhumans–animate and less animate–can make their way, turn toward movement themselves. (loc293)

I feel that Stein, Pound, and Joyce each became aware of this turn and began to lose the “traditional way of the human” in their use of language.  In their texts, and for each this plays out right on the pages their works, they began to move aside to allow words to move themselves.  The nonhuman turn Grusin identifies taking place in the twenty-first century started to roll in the early twentieth.

The approaches of Hayles and Pressman overlap with Grusin’s in interesting ways, and they are all participating in larger philosophical discussions of media studies and ontology.  My own purpose in referring to their works is more modest in that I’m trying to explain very particular features of texts appearing in modernist literature.  Hayles’ and Pressman’s approach is useful because they seek to use comparative techniques to illuminate normalized or misunderstood functions of different media forms.  I similarly feel that we have been misunderstanding certain features of modernist literary texts for some time and that more recent theorizations of digital media can help us understand their functions.  Grusin’s approach helps in this regard because he highlights the seemingly subtle changes in contemporary thinking that have major effects on how we understand the role of the human amidst a universe of nonhuman phenomena and objects.  I’m looking at a small historical period and a set of literary texts, but I also think a new conceptualization of the relationship between humans and media will have important consequences on the historical accounts of code, programming, and software.

I feel these texts exhibit the characteristics of code, but in order to discuss them this way it is necessary to banish the normalized understandings of the role authors have in the creation and reception of their texts.  In other words, I want to remove the human from the interaction between elements appearing in these literary texts.  I want to hear the writing speaking to the other writing without hallucinating the author’s simulated consciousness hovering over the material paper and language appearing in the book.


[1] I’ll take a more detailed look at language as machine in my next post.

[2] This notion of design is essential to my definition of code as it appears in print texts.  I will deal with it in more detail in my next post when I cover Derrida and his debate against performativity and intention.

-And to put it another way, the plastic, or, if you insist on the use of a much abused word, the aesthetic of machines is still in a healthy state, because one can still think about the machine without dragging in the private life and personality of the inventor  -Ezra Pound, Machine Art 1930

This posts represents my very earliest attempts to connect literary language to code, programming, or software.  I need to do a great deal more reading on all these topics, particularly in code and software studies and definitions of information.  This post is only the first in a series in which I plan to try and express some nascent ideas on changes in how language and media are conceived of in modernist literature.  These changes are, briefly:

  • (1) authors (for now I’m focusing on Stein, Joyce, Pound, and possibly H.D. and Beckett) began to see print as a resistant medium rather than a neutral extension of their artistic interiority;
  • (2) this new way of seeing their medium coincided with a shift in their understanding of language in which it literally transformed from romantic notions of expression into information in a material and embodied sense (this change will require a post of its own, but I’ll cover it briefly below as well);
  • (3) both of these reconceptualizations result from newly understood boundaries between human agency and the language and media it creates, from authorial intention, in which a consciousness is simulated through the text via language, and into notions of design as in the plastic arts and industries including, of course, fields like contemporary computer programming (this shift will also be covered in the post on information);
  • (4) the focus on design (as opposed to intention) preserves the author’s role in creation while also emphasizing their awareness of the fundamentally machinic and non-human status of media and language;
  • (5) the above shifts taking place during the modernist period represent a major conceptual break in which authors become aware of language as divided from the human (both author and reader) altering the way they use it in ways identical to the functions of what we now discuss and study as code, programming, or software;

In some form or another, I have been searching for ways to approach this topic for at least three years.  Throughout the composition of my dissertation which situates the information management techniques used by Joyce, Toomer, H.D., and Pound within the century-long technical and conceptual development of databases, I was continually trying–and failing–to express certain features of their works which continued to elude my ability to express.  These features, it took me a long time to realize, could not be theorized as I was making another argument about literature and databases.  These other ideas needed their own attention and now that I have expanded my dissertation into a book proposal, I have a bit of freedom to explore the topic.

In reading and writing on the texts I examine in my dissertation, I kept running into sections that exhibited the same informational, machinic, and automated functions of what is referred to in different contexts as code, programming, and software.  At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to define code.  This was in part because I hadn’t studied the term information clearly enough.  I still haven’t gotten nearly there, but I am closer.

I follow John Durham Peters in his article “Information: Notes Toward a Critical History” in which he says, “Information is knowledge with the human body taken out of it.  Information, which in empiricism had meant the experience of an individual, with statistics came to mean the experience of the state, insofar as the state can be said to have experience.  Implicit in statistics is a kind of knower not subject to mortal limits” (15).  Though I understand Peters is not here presenting a final definition of information, I find it compelling that information comes into being when it is separated from the human.  It is put into form, divided from the human that creates it, externalized and in that process becomes information.[1]

Granted, Peters is here discussing statistics, which, because of their mathematical sterility, aren’t subject to the same conceptual and interpretive drift as literary language.  However, I am not arguing about the reliability with which language-become-information carries meaning from its author to a reader/consumer.  Instead, I’m focusing on how authors, as they began to see language as material and as separated from their human agency, began to short circuit this connection between author and reader.  In other words, this is a shift from romantic notions of literary expression in which a text transmits the author’s consciousness to an imagined reader through language, toward one in which texts, like all other media (particularly the new media that surrounded the production of modernist texts) house, arrange, present, and manage information.  The interruption of this connection between author and reader prompted the authors to dramatically shift their focus from simulating their consciousness in their texts, and begin exploring the capabilities for language interact with other language.  (It is no surprise that many of these texts become functionally unreadable at this same juncture.)

I feel this conceptualization of language-as-information allows me to draw a connection between it and what we think of as code.  Here is my definition of CODE:

Code is information that speaks to other information.

A coded or programmed example of media, a piece of software, a database, a social media interface, a personal computer, are all discussed as machines.  They are machines because they perform automated functions.   These functions are automated because they operate, at least in part, independently of human agency or interference.  On the other hand, in every case I can think of, they are also designed by, interacted with, or consumed by humans.  Between the human that designs the machine and the human that receives what it produces or the process it carries out, that machine “works” independently of its creator.

Much has been written on this topic from a media studies perspective.  I wrote a blog post 2 years ago referring to the author’s role, or lack thereof, within a text as a question of “presence.”  This post remains relevant to this discussion, but for a myriad of reasons, I would like to shed the philosophical baggage of the Heideggerian notion of presence and instead pursue this media studies avenue.  This allows me to to examine the role programmers play in texts comprised of code or software in order to illuminate the way modernist authors design their works.

In that previous post, I quoted from a couple of theorists which I’ll reproduce briefly here.  Wolfgang Ernst, in his essay collection Digital Memory and the Archive, confronts this issue frequently, but never so clearly as in In “Toward a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations,” he says,

The media archaeologist, without passion, does not hallucinate life when he listens to recorded voices, as does the notorious dog Nipper when listening to ‘His Master’s Voice’ on a phonograph.  The media-archaeological exercise is to be aware of the fact that at each technologically given moment we are dealing with media not humans, that we are not speaking with the dead but dealing with dead media that operate.(183)

Ernst focuses on digital media and the microtemporalities they rely upon that are and should be understood as alien to human experience.  The interposition of the digital technology between the author, the text (video, sound, or actual text), and the reader makes it easy to visualize how the content itself is separated from the humans with which it interacts.  The interposition of the technical apparatus makes it easy to see the divide between the text’s creator and its consumer.  For the authors working in print that I’m focusing on, it’s less obvious that this same division exists.  However, like these more contemporary technical media, print is subject to the same separation from the human.

N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, in the astonishingly clear and brilliant Introduction to their edited collection Comparative Textual Media, put it best:

[W]hen writing was accomplished by a quill pen, ink pot, and paper, it was possible to fantasize that writing was simple and straightforward, a means by which the writer’s thoughts could be transferred more or less directly into the reader’s mind.  With the proliferation of technical media in the latter half of the nineteenth century, that illusion became much more difficult to sustain, for intervening between writer and reader was a proliferating array of technical devices, including telegraphs, phonographs, typewriters, Dictaphones, Teletypes, and wire recorders, on up to digital computing devices that themselves are splitting into an astonishing array of different protocols, functionalities, interfaces, and codes.  The deepening complexities of the media landscape have made mediality, in all its forms, a central concerns of the twenty-first century.  With that that changed cultural emphasis  comes a reawakening of interesting in the complexities of earlier media forms as well. (loc157)

Hayles and Pressman identify the intervention of technical media as the event that reconfigured this understanding of writing as a more or less uninterrupted transmission from the author’s mind into the reader’s.  I agree with Hayles and Pressman, particularly with regard to the renewed interest in older media, namely print.  However, I would also like to shift the focus slightly, from the reader/critic/media studies perspective and toward the authors themselves.

Many things change when critics and scholars view texts as material media rather than magical transmitter of authorial voice.  It further stands to reason that similar changes take place when authors begin to view their own texts as media rather than as extensions of their artistic intentionality.  I would further argue that we can pretty reliably pinpoint when this shift happens in literature.   When the authors begin to view their media, and more importantly the embodied language it houses, as fundamentally not human their approach to authorship alters in profound ways.

The feature of these sections of text which led me to these conclusions was that the author, Joyce, Toomer, H.D., or Pound (or Gertrude Stein, Susan Howe, Anne Carson, and any number of others) was deliberately removing herself from the text.  This absence signals a removal of the authorial, that is human, consciousness presiding over the text guiding the reader through and simulating the projection of consciousness from the moment of writing into the moment of reading.  Absent this simulated authorial consciousness, texts become the arrangement of linguistic signs and pictures, designed, like any other media object, to create certain effects in the audience or reader.  In several particular cases, the ones I’ll analyze in the posts that follow, these features are taken a step further.  In addition to the removal of the simulated consciousness, the texts also begin to fill this gap with relationships–rhymes, puns, subject rhymes, orthographic isomorphies, repetition–between elements of information.  In other words, in these texts there is no human speaking, but information is “speaking” to other information.  This is code.  

There is a host of texts that exhibit these characteristics.  The examples are that much more interesting because several of them, The Making of Americans, the transition from the Ur-Cantos to The Cantos, the divide between initial style and experimental episodes in Ulysses, not only possess these features, but also reveal the aesthetic and conceptual processes by which they were arrived at by the author.  The development of these tactics actually plays out before our eyes as readers.  Pound in particular, because he wrote so much about literature and aesthetics, is explicit about the conceptual heavy lifting it took to achieve.  In the following blog posts, I will outline how these effects develop in each of these texts beginning with The Making of Americans.  First, however, I will pursue the debate in Signature/Event/Context in order to more fully explain the division between the human and information.

[1] I quibble with Peters’ final sentence, arguing it is the opposite.  It is when information becomes information that it becomes “mortal”.  The information would be immortal if it were to carry its producer’s intention, ghostlike, across separation from production to consumption.

I have a (filthy) OCR of Benjamin’s Arcades Project (which I won’t share) and plugged it into Voyant just for fun.  I envision a digital humanities course in which students work individually or collaboratively to first fix the OCR, then apply as many text analysis tools and encoding languages as possible.  Because it is not explicitly artistic, the Arcades Project seems like an interesting text to read–by both machines and humans–alongside other informationally overloaded and archival texts such as The Making of Americans, The Cantos,  perhaps even the Wake.  



Months after completing my dissertation and generating a book proposal, materials for the academic job market, and designing and teaching several classes, I’ve gotten around to reading Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet.  It is a novel I had been meaning to read before I began my dissertation for several reasons.  That Flaubert was an influence on Joyce is important to me, but I also wanted to read it because I adore Madame Bovary and these works of refined stylists, Chekhov, Austen, Tolstoy, Baldwin, etc., as ends in themselves.  It was a pleasure read and delivered on that front in every way.  It’s funny, witty, and readable in a way that I find both relaxing and exhilarating.  But in addition to an example of Flaubert’s gifts as a writer, Bouvard and Pecuchet exhibits a type of writing that would become important for the modernist period.  Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education (which I confess I read long enough ago to have a sketchy memory of) are both highly literate books, and the former especially reproduces the experience of reading certain kinds of texts.  In each of these novels, Flaubert fixates on the experience of reading from a narrative sense in that his characters are constantly reading and reacting to their readings, but also because depicting these experiences demanded that he too “did the reading”.  In so doing he was forced to differentiate between proper and improper ways of digesting the information found in books.  This blog post is a preliminary look at how Flaubert navigated this difference and then compares his approach to the examinations of Joyce and Pound I perform in my book, Modernist Literary Media.

Bouvard and Pecuchet represents the experience of accessing information and its potentially deleterious effects for characters Flaubert felt weren’t armed with the proper contextual perspectives, but it differs from Madame Bovary in a couple of important ways.  The first way is more logistical/material/practical, and is well-documented in Flaubert’s correspondence: in order to write Bouvard and Pecuchet, he had to perform a great deal of research, which he frequently complained of as onerous and hardly worth the time it took.  The second difference seems related to this first, but is more difficult to explain.  Bouvard and Pecuchet are depicted with a viciousness and derision that is not present in Flaubert’s story about Emma Bovary.  Emma’s mistakes are romantic and situated in a bildung narrative structure in which a character gains knowledge that, despite failing to prevent tragedy, humanizes her.  Bouvard and Pecuchet aren’t afforded this same artistic mercy and, perhaps because Flaubert died before he could finish, or because of a fundamental shift in how he conceived of the characters’ relationship to this information, they never get redeemed from their failure to properly apprehend their mistakes.

To begin with the first issue, in both the introduction by translator Mark Polizzotti and preface by Ramond Queneau, Flaubert is on record complaining about the volume of work Bouvard and Pecuchet required to write.  Here Polizzotti quotes Flaubert scoffing at his own outsized ambitions: “‘I’m going to have to study a host of things I know nothing about … One would have to be insane, completely deranged, to take on such a book!'” (vii).  Bouvard and Pecuchet taxed him in ways that his previous had not: “Each of his novels required vast amounts of research, whether in the field or on the printed page: for Bouvard and Pecuchet, he famously read some fifteen hundred volumes, much like the protagonists themselves–and not without their litany of complaints” (xxv).  That Flaubert was forced to “do the reading” alongside the protagonists he is writing is evidenced throughout the series of investigations Bouvard and Pecuchet undertake.

Throughout the novel (or “encyclopedia” as he sometimes referred to it) he repeatedly reproduces their experiences with texts, and in ways that prefigure the works by Joyce, H.D., Toomer, and Pound that I studied in my work on literature and databases.  Like these authors that would follow, Flaubert selects elements of information from other texts and then arranges them into a narrative causal chain on the pages of the novel.  The clearest example of this process appears–fittingly to my mind–as Bouvard and Pecuchet study history.  They begin, after the sheer number of historical contingencies become apparent to them, by naively approaching from a total coverage model: “They no longer had a fixed idea about the individuals and events of that time.  To form an impartial judgment, they would have to read every history, every newspaper and manuscript, for the slightest omission could foster and error that would lead to others, and on unto infinity.  They gave up” (105).  As with each of their projects, Bouvard and Pecuchet are confronted with the difficulty of mastery and so give up.  In this case, they scale back their ambitions and decide to “[write] the life of the Duke of Angouleme” (109).[1]  Their understanding of the discipline of history is as such: “one could take a subject, read all the source materials, make an analysis–then condense it into a narration, which would be like a summary of facts, a reflection of the whole truth.  Such a project seemed feasible to Pecuchet” (108).  What is so frustrating (and funny) about this description of the work of history, is that it is immediately preceded by a critique of that very method:

Few historians have followed these rules–but always in the interests of a particular cause, religion, nation, party, or system, or to discredit a kind, sway the populace, or offer a moral example.

The [historians], who claim to be relating the facts, are no better.  For it is impossible to say everything.  One has to make choices.  But one’s selection of documents is guided by a certain viewpoint; and as this viewpoint varies, depending on the writer’s situation, history will never be fixed entirely. (108)

Here is where the events and activities Flaubert depicts in the narrative converge with the practical realities he confronted as he wrote the novel.  He provides the reader with a vision of how Bouvard and Pecuchet proceed with their history: “They pondered the project, debated it, and finally resolved to spend two weeks at the public library in Caen gathering background information” and “[w]hen they had taken their notes, they drafted an outline” (109).  The text that follows appears as a list of dates followed by a description of events in the life of the Duke:img_20170206_170315474

The organization of their outline fades quickly:


And eventually devolves into Bouvard and Pecuchet’s superficial considerations about love affairs and even their conviction that haircuts reflect individuals’ dispositions:


The characters both tend to gravitate toward superficial information, and are constantly seduced by trivial considerations.  In the case with the Duke’s conflicting haircuts and then the importance Bouvard and Pecuchet attach to it, the novel’s humor derives from these episodes that lead to their failures and surrenders.

However, as much distance as Flaubert puts between himself and his characters, he was required to reproduce this fictional research in order to portray it in the narrative.  As noted above, Flaubert was vocal about the unique difficulties the composition of Bouvard and Pecuchet presented, and they centered around the volume of information he integrated into the text.  But they also derived from the similarity between his project to “‘vent all his anger'” by lampooning the stupidity of his characters and the actual scholarly work it required to do that.  In other words, Flaubert’s project to make fun of his characters (and by implication the “the disgust” his “contemporaries” inspired in him) required that he do a lot of the same superficial research that irritated him so profoundly.  Flaubert was himself anxious on this front: “Bouvard and Pecuchet have filled me up to such a point that I’ve become them!  Their stupidity is my own and I am bursting with it” (xxv).[2]

With each new object of study, Bouvard and Pecuchet cycle through credible and superficial source materials, reading philosophy, history, medicine, agriculture, architecture, etc.  They read diligently until they find it difficult, then resort to more accessible sources.  As a narrative pattern, this repetition provides a great deal of humor, and affords Flaubert opportunities to exercise his most ferocious ironies.  Here Bouvard and Pecuchet begin with ancient Greek philosophy but deem it too difficult: “The ancient masters were inaccessible, given the length of their work and the difficulty of their language” (190).  The characters’ solution is to retreat into easier materials: “And, desiring something less taxing, they bought Mr. Guesnier’s Basic Course in Philosophy, for classroom use” (193).  Bouvard and Pecuchet immerse themselves in this text taking opposite positions in scrimmage philosophical arguments (a habit they form as they move into metaphysics, religion, and politics), but a new, and I would argue, to Flaubert’s thinking, a more dangerous feature of their approach to information arises.  Flaubert writes:

But philosophy heightened their opinion of themselves.  They looked back pityingly on their former preoccupations with farming, literature, and politics.  The museum now inspired their disgust.  They would have liked nothing better than to sell off all those knickknacks.  And they moved on to chapter 2, the faculties of the soul. (195)

This passage is a great example of Flaubert’s gifts for understated irony, that last sentence clinching a withheld joke that the characters had assumed this false superiority not only from a secondary text, but only from its first chapter.  In addition however, the passage reveals that the two, beyond their penchant for trivial considerations, are highly credulous consumers of information.  Arriving at an understanding of why Flaubert reserved his most withering derision for these two fairly simple and mostly harmless clerks [3] can begin with how they approach information as either inherently fixed, factual, and falsifiable, or altogether worthless.  They don’t evaluate the information they consume at all, it is either useful in the sense that it effortlessly reveals the truth, or it is artificially constructed, the product of potentially biased selection criteria and information labor.  As the Queneau succinctly puts it, Bouvard and Pecuchet “are in love with the absolute and cannot bear contradictions.  They believe in the absolute validity of the functioning of the human mind confronted with phenomena” (xxxi).  Flaubert was diametrically opposed to this need for certainty.  Queneau quotes from a letter Flaubert wrote in 1850:

Ineptitude consists in wanting to conclude.  We tell each other: but our base is not fixed; which of us will be right?  I see a past in ruins and a future in embryo; … Everything is in a state of confusion.  But this means wanting only noon or midnight; it means not understanding twilight…What mind of any strength–beginning with Homer–has ever come to a conclusion? (xxxiv)

Some forty years later, Joyce would follow in Flaubert’s groove by reaching back to Homer as a basis for his informationally overloaded novel Ulysses.  As I’ve argued in an article on Ulysses, however, Homer provides no solution for the interpretive problems presented by modernity.

Whatever pathos or redemption that results from associating an ordinary and socially ostracized Jewish Dubliner with one of the most enduring heroes in Western literature becomes buried under the mountains of extraneous information.  The order and vitality that can be achieved by reaching back to those foundational texts of the Western letters’ Greek ancestry become obscured by auto-generating parodies of Fenian jingoism and the clichéd patois of bourgeois women’s magazines.  The initiation of these exaggerated interpolations compromises the epic weight Homeric correspondences lend to Ulysses.  The order the mythic method offers to the modern world becomes indistinguishable from a mass of information that tells no story, that provides no closure, and continues to accrete information that, because it operates according to a program, registers no special sorrow at the stillborn reunion of a sonless father and fatherless son as Bloom and Stephen part in the middle of the night, both toward uncertain futures.  In unleashing the database aesthetic, Joyce expresses both the power and the impersonality of associational logic.  This power derives from its limitless ability to connect elements of information to one another, and the impersonality from the automatic way these elements connect, which results in a decentralization of the creative role of the human.  Rather than a catalyst, creator, or protagonist of novels and poems, the human constantly tries to interpret the information, to determine what is relevant, to catch at the thread of story beneath the morass of indefinitely accumulating associations.  This is the context in which Joyce most profoundly predicts the twenty-first century role of information and raises a new dilemma about whether or not humans determine information or vice versa. [4]

Pound too participates in this archival vertigo.  His Cantos, like Flaubert’s recreation of Bouvard and Pecuchet’s history of the Duke, recreate the disorientation of archives.  In recreating the life of Sigismundo Malatesta, Pound foregrounds the conflicting accounts, but also the joints between the elements he extracted from the archive and assembled into his poem.

This adaptation continues with some isolated references to other figures but slowly changes into a more rapid, jarring presentation of events and facts that are linked using ‘And’ to coordinate and conjoin the elements:

And the wind is still for a little

And the dusk rolled

to one side a little

And he was twelve at the time, Sigismundo,

And no dues had been paid for three years,

And his elder brother gone pious;

And that year they fought in the streets,

And that year he got out to Cesena

And brought back the levies,

And that year he crossed by night over Foglia, and…” (C 8 32-33.166-175)

The presentation of events in this fashion continues into the first 123 lines of Canto 9 and then transitions back to direct quotation (this time with quotation marks) from Malatesta’s correspondence.  The separate elements are strung together through the ‘And’ at the beginning of the lines.  In this section Pound exposes the ligature that binds the individual elements together.  Individual fragments from the texts serving as sources for the Malatesta Cantos appear one after another.  The interposition of ‘And’ between the elements emphasizes how the pieces are separate, but linked through their inclusion in the poem.  Had Pound made this into a coherent narrative, the text would create the impression that there is a narrative and causal relationship between the elements.  The effect Pound creates through this strategy comprises an extended list of individual elements selected from the source texts for the cantos, presented on the page one after another.  This recreates the patterns Pound identified while searching the archives in which these documents are housed and extracting specific pieces for inclusion in the poem. [5]

Like Bouvard and Pecuchet’s history, Pound selects elements from his research on Malatesta and integrates them into his pseudo-narrative account of his life.  Unlike the bumbling characters, however, Pound is obsessed with showing the alternative dimensions to every story.  He is clearly a fan of Malatesta’s temperamental buoyancy, but insists on presenting these positive aspects of his character and career alongside negative accounts  showing the complexity and perspectival nature of history, narrative, and the more general activity of interacting with information.

This is all to say, that Flaubert’s frustration at how individuals used information in his age had measurable influence on the Anglophone modernists like Joyce and Pound.  Bouvard and Pecuchet is important to read alongside these informationally overloaded works of the twentieth century for precisely this reason: Flaubert was sensitive enough to diagnose a problem that would become an obsession of modernism as the volume of information increased with the passage of time.  Even more dramatically, in an age of algorithmically populated newsfeeds, bot-generated “fake news”, and clearly unqualified Secretaries of Education (Devos was approved during the composition of this post), it is that much more essential that we hear Flaubert’s late nineteenth century derision of unquestioned information creation and consumption.  Bouvard and Pecuchet is a polemic against the self-satisfied acceptance of prepared wisdom in the face of a complex world:

this novel is constructed almost entirely on cliches, whether the seemingly endless stream of platitudes voiced by the characters, the deadpan bromides encountered in the many works our heroes reference (man of which later reappear in the ‘Dictionary’), or the assumptions governing their choices of occupation. … It is no accident that the protagonists are copy-clerks, and the novel’s planned resolution, which finds them returning to their profession after having tried everything else under the sun, is telegraphed well in advance: in fact, Bouvard and Pecuchet have never stopped being copyists, and their constant absorption and regurgitation of discipline after discipline is just so much acting of that mechanically reproductive act. (xiii)

In this sense, the novel, like the work of so many twentieth century modernists, presents information as a crisis, as a challenge not only to institutions and bureaucracies, but to artists and individuals seeking to find meaning within the climate of overload.  That Bouvard and Pecuchet, published incomplete in 1881, has its origins in The Dictionary in Accepted Ideas (which follows the text of the novel in the gorgeous Dalkey edition and is hilarious) is doubly interesting for this reason.  Flaubert was driven to fits of rage by the platitudes of the society around him because they were themselves the result of a lazy orientation toward information.  They represent, like so many uttered by Bouvard and Pecuchet, a kind of surrender when things get complex.  Each easy piece of wisdom is the reduction of something complex to a mnemonic device, easy to remember and share, but divided from the reality it is thought to represent (and in that sense what frustrated Flaubert is what frustrated Pound in his Imagist period).  But each entry in the dictionary is itself a savage quip indexed to a particular contemporary rhetorical idiocy or recycled witticism Flaubert encountered.  In that sense, Bouvard and Pecuchet novelizes the development of these accepted ideas and the people that transact in them.  As I’ve argued about Ulysses, Palimpsest, and The Cantos, the novel performs an arrangement of information in ways that seek to extend our understanding of it.  Like Joyce’s composition structure–the avant-texte in textual genetic terms–or Pound’s poetry which is literally comprised of archival fragments, Flaubert seeks to confront the problem that information overload presents by churning it into his art, fictionalizing and aestheticizing the cultural challenges presented by its overload.  That Flaubert began this project nearly three quarters of a century before the authors I argue participate in the development of databases testifies to the long development of the literary confrontation with information.

[1] This is a truly funny moment in the text.  Pecuchet suggests they write the life of the Duke to which Bouvard replies “But he was an idiot!”  This doesn’t faze Pecuchet who replies, “So what?  Secondary figures sometimes have enormous influence, and this one might turn out to have been a key player” (109).  Funny as it is, this exchange (and Bouvard’s initial objections and then pliability) is emblematic of many of their most vexing habits of mind.  They don’t know the Duke was a player, but are content with the possiblity that he was.  They have no rigor for choosing their topics or their methods.

[2] It’s important to acknowledge that I’m not adding much to a discussion already taking place in the introduction and preface to Bouvard and Pecuchet, but the aim of this post is to connect Flaubert’s frustration with how he felt individuals like Bouvard and Pecuchet consumed information with the modernist writers like Pound and Joyce who sought to reproduce their own information climates.

[3] One conspicuous way Bouvard and Pecuchet are far from harmless is in their treatment of animals.  They kill both a dog and a cat in undeniably cruel ways.

[4] From my article on Ulysses and databases forthcoming in Joyce Studies Annual.

[5] From my chapter on Pound’s XXX Cantos.

1. Lemonade, Beyonce
2. Blond, Frank Ocean
3. Fool, Jameszoo
4. My Woman, Angel Olsen
5. Hopeless, Anohni
6. Coloring Book, Chance
7. Blood Bitch, Jenny Hval
8. untitled unmastered, Kendrick Lamar
9. A Minor Thought, Moomin
10. Sirens, Nicolas Jaar
11. s/t, Weval
12. Maligne Range, LNS
13. Narcissus in Retrograde, Avalon Emerson
14. Puberty 2, Mitsky
15.The Life of Pablo, Kanye West
16. Kern Vol. 3, Objekt
17. A Moon Shaped Pool, Radiohead
18. For Those of You Who Have Never, Huerco S
19. Telefone, NoName
20. Throat, ADR
21. EARS, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
22. The Colour in Anything, James Blake
23. What You Get for Being Young, Suzanne Kraft
24. Well Worn, Kllo
25. Fallen, Steven Julien
26. 22, A Million, Bon Iver
27. Follower, The Field
28. In Drum Play`, Pangaea
29. A Seat at the Table, Solange
30. The Bells, Kornel Kovacs
31. Kuiper, Floating Points
32. Shapes in Formation, Sad City
33. Prima Donna, Vince Staples
34. FLOTUS, Lambchop
35. Rojus (Designated to Dance), Leon Vynehall
36. Big Black Coat , Junior Boys
37. Adieux au Dancefloor, Marie Davidson
38. Victorious, Floorplan
39. IDLE033, Matt Karmil
40. Who is Richie Brains?, Richie Brains
41. Red Friday, YG
42. Farewell, Starlite!, Francis and the Lights
43. The Gamble, Nonkeen
44. We Have To Go, Computer Graphics
45. Ultimate Care II, Matmos
46. Sleep Cycle, Deakin
47. This is Acting, Sia
48. Jeffrey, Young Thug
49. Young Death/Nightmarket, Burial
50. s/t, A Made Up Sound
51. Boy King, Wild Beasts
52. Still Brazy, YG
53. At the Turn of Equilibrium, Petar Dundov
54. Cyclicality Between Procyon and Gomesia, Vakula
55. You Want it Darker, Leonard Cohen
56. Human Energy, Machinedrum
57. Love Stream, Tim Hecker
58. Shred, Skee Mask
59. Dorrisburg, Irrbloss
60. Hollowed, Ital Tek

Whities 006, Avalon Emerson
Awaken, My Love, Childish Gambino

Song of the Year: Soup, Jameszoo


The “Hybrid” Dissertation

Last week I submitted my completed dissertation, Database Modernism: Literary Information Media, am happy to have received a Ph.D. in English Literature.  Conceiving of and sustaining an argument of that scale was a challenge, and after some rest and a return to teaching, one I think I could tackle again.  In addition to the written arguments on Joyce’s Ulysses, H.D.’s Palimpsest, and Pound’s XXX Cantos, that were printed and bound, I chose to do a digital project in place of a fourth written chapter.  In my mind, the addition of this digital component raises some interesting questions that I’ve discussed before in some conference presentations, but want to revisit now that the dissertation is complete.  This post could sound a little whiny, but my goal is only to express the unexpected challenges my dissertation presented and how they led to some important conclusions, both in terms of the project itself and how I view my academic labor and ideas of completeness.

My dissertation argues that the information overload of the early twentieth century prompted Joyce, H.D., Pound, and other modernist authors and artists to devise new methods of information organization and access that forecast media strategies that developed into the digital database.  The argument uses a comparative media approach to isolate relationships between elements of information in these print texts in order to determine where they resemble the operations of databases.  The common denominator between these print and digital platforms, my dissertation argues, is the associational logic by which individual elements of information are organized by a designer/author and then presented to a user/reader.

I have some technical experience with transitioning print texts to digital platforms from my time working on the Modernist Journals Project here at the University of Tulsa.  Because of the text encoding and OCR skills I picked up at the MJP, and because the argument of my dissertation rests on this fulcrum between print and digital media, I decided a digital project might be an interesting way to both expand the project’s scope and engage with some new questions and methodologies digital humanities has introduced into the study of literature.  I supplemented my skills with two trips and three classes at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, experiences which were terrific in every possible way.  As it played out over the nearly two years I worked on the dissertation, I couldn’t be happier with the results, and I’m actually more confident in the findings now that it’s completed.  Still, I did learn some unexpected things about a dissertation that consists of traditional written arguments along with digital components.

The digital project is basically an expression of my written argument on Pound’s XXX Cantos.  In Chapter 3, I argue that the poem operates according to a dual structure of elements and relationships and that this structure resembles the node and edge structure of graph databases.  The elements, usually quotations, references, ventriloquisms, or other intertextual fragments,[1] Pound selected from the literary and historical archive and arranged on the pages of his poem according to an associational logic.  The project consists of a digital version of the 150 page XXX Cantos (which is kept secure for copyright reasons that I’ll discuss below) marked up with a custom set of tags drawn from the Text Encoding Initiative’s encoding language.   Using secondary sources (mostly Carroll F. Terrell’s A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound) and a lot of my own subjective interpretation of the poem, I used TEI tags and separate bibliography, prosopography, and gazetteer files to define as many of the intertextual elements as possible.  Then I collected/created a much lighter and more agile second tagging structure to express relationships between the different elements in the poem.  I won’t recap the project in too much detail here because I did here.

What I Learned

The clearest lesson I drew from the digital project revolves around notions of completeness: writing arguments about literary texts have different timelines than completing digital projects.  My goal when I began the digital project was simply to express the written argument of Chapter 3 using digital tools.  The encoded text I ended up with, however, is not shareable, usable, or publishable in the way that a written argument is.  Most practically, I can’t disseminate the digital project in its current form because it’s a digital version of the XXX Cantos, a text that is under copyright with New Directions.  Thanks to a lucky connection, I got in touch with ND and they were more than pleasant, but politely and understandably were not comfortable with me putting my digital version of the text on the web.  In a search for alternatives, I cycled through several options,[2] but never arrived at anything that would work in the short or long term without requiring some additional training and a sizable amount of work for a non-expert like me.

As it concerns the dissertation as a discrete project signaling the end of my Ph.D., the presentation of the project is actually a moot point, however, because the larger lesson I learned from the project is that the timeline for written arguments and complete digital projects differ in ways that may have impacted how I conceived of the project at the outset.   I wrote the bulk of the dissertation while on a fellowship that was generously awarded to me by my institution.  This fellowship is designed to allow dissertators to focus as completely as possible on writing and research so she or he can finish in a reasonable amount of time.  As it was, I was right up against the original deadline having drafted and revised three chapters and more or less finished the encoding of the XXX Cantos.  Building an interface for presenting the text (which, because of copyright was conceptually and technically difficult anyway) would have required more time, expertise, and most concretely from my perspective, more funding.  The funding schedule that covered the work that I did complete provided me with relatively lavish resources, but I was not able to reach a point where the digital component was presentable because it would have required more training.  Applying for additional grants, fellowships, and other funding sources is not impossible, but the acceptance and dispersion would have operated on a timeline that exceeds my dissertation fellowship funding.

Writing my dissertation was not at all easy.  As this post is probably itself evidence of, I am not naturally good at expressing ideas in writing.  But I do basically know how to use the English language and have written arguments about literature.  Conceiving of and executing a project using the TEI was somewhat different because it took a lot of basic learning to just to develop a familiarity, an admission which is itself a little embarrassing because of the complexity and ease with which I see scholars using it for other projects.  Gaining familiarity with the TEI required a lot of time on my own and the DHSI classes, through which I acquired a functional understanding of how to encode a text and assemble a custom schema and tagging structure.  The rest of the project required the actual creation of the text and the encoding, all of which are complete,[3] but, again, not shareable in its current form.  In addition, as I became increasingly aware as the project developed, the encoded text isn’t all that interesting by itself.  It embodies the written argument in ways that satisfy me and my dissertation committee, but it is not a useful tool or reading aid for anyone else.  In other words, I “completed” a written argument about Pound’s XXX Cantos and I “completed” a corresponding encoding of the poem, but only the written argument is something I can share with others, and this presents some unforeseen challenges, particularly as I go on the job market.

As is, I can’t publish the project because of copyright restrictions, but also because without an interface the encoded text isn’t at all useful or illuminating anyway.  The structural and linking tags are geared toward machine reading and so don’t reveal much to a human reader of the text.  In order to make the encoding useful, it’s necessary to build an additional interfacing structure which somehow presents the metadata to a user or reader.[4]  What I’m left with is a dissertation chapter’s worth of work that isn’t useful to a public or shareable with a hiring committee.  The question of completeness also affects how I talk about the project.  I submitted a written methodology and rationale as an article for publication and the peer review feedback was largely positive, but the piece was ultimately rejected because there was no completed project to unveil.  I wrote this article while on the deadline for my dissertation, a lot of extra work that resulted in a better grasp of the digital project, but no publication on my CV and more deadline stress for the other chapters because of the lost time.

I’m also in an odd position because my written dissertation consists of an introduction and three chapters.  Because it’s customary to have a fourth chapter for a book proposal, it will be necessary for me to at least conceive of another written chapter before I approach a press.  This is not impossible, and like everyone who writes a dissertation, as I was writing, many texts presented themselves as having potential for inclusion.   This doesn’t diminish the research and writing that I could have completed during the time I was working on the digital project.

What I Really Learned

Complaining aside, I remain glad I did the project and as professional and technical training and intellectual exercise, it was all very valuable.  In addition, the questions the project raised and, in some cases, answered, will be interesting to my work going forward and for what I can bring to a literature classroom or English department.

The immediate question that presents itself to me as I compare notions of completeness between written and digital instantiations of the dissertation center on labor.  I can’t present the digital project because I don’t have the technical expertise or the time and funding to build an interface.  What I had been eliding from the production of my dissertation from the outset, and may never have considered without the challenges the digital project presented, is that I don’t have the technical expertise to print and present my dissertation either.   This is labor and expertise, that, like so much that takes place in a university and the humanities, is passed off to librarians and other information media experts.  The labor and skill required to create the object that mediates my work remain completely separate from what constitutes my sense of completion for the project.  To take a rhetorical shortcut: THAT’S PROBLEMATIC!   It’s that much more problematic considering my dissertation explicitly engages with the conceptual and material differences that arise when transitioning information between print and digital media.  The entire argument of my dissertation rests on the notion that when Joyce, H.D., and Pound began viewing print as media rather than a conduit for the transmission of their romantic interiority, it significantly changed their work.  This is a lesson I had almost failed to learn about my own work.  My understanding of the practice of writing arguments about literature had to this point completely ignored the importance of these independently fascinating and integral components of scholarly production.

I don’t want to zoom out too far from this fairly insignificant event, but for me the realization that resulted from the tension between my interaction with print and digital media stands as an identifiable instance of the value of digital humanities.  The use of digital tools and media for humanities scholarship forces us to evaluate those normalized zones of our profession.  As an early career scholar going on the  job market next year, my hope is that these situated understandings of how media objects get produced and consumed is something I could bring to a classroom of students who are themselves constantly transitioning between all manner of media.

[1] I say “usually” only because Pound’s original poetry is also mixed in with the intertextual elements and relates to the other materials in the same way.

[2] For example, providing partial access for online users that aligned with accepted fair use practices.  Or, determining which of the individual cantos appeared in periodicals before copyright took hold and publishing the encoded versions to the web.  This is tricky territory, however, because it’s not totally 100% obvious that those are out of copyright either.  I don’t have the resources to litigate and this project isn’t nearly important enough to do it anyway.  On top of all that, I have an extreme appreciation for the work that ND does and fetishize the physical copies of their modernist poets (such beautiful paperback books!).

[3] Even this notion of completness is tricky because there are certainly sections of the poem I could encode more precisely, transparently, and usefully.

[4] I’m not convinced a digital edition of the poem is all that useful (mostly because I dislike reading complex texts on computer screens).

[Below is the first draft of the introduction to my dissertation Introduction]

During the early twentieth century an entire network of forces—wars, technology, communication media, globalizing commerce, social movements—contributed to the irreversible and world-wide expansion in the volume of information confronting each individual.  Information overload has become a regular part of our lexicon in the digital age, but began to make itself felt through the intersection of these social and cultural shifts.  In Modernist Fiction and the News, David Rando describes the effects the increase of information had on individuals in the modernist period:

The early twentieth century was the first period to face the impossibility of adequately storing, remembering, and prioritizing the avalanche of information that new recording technologies and mass communication networks pressed upon consciousness, thereby altering not only human experience but also reality itself.  In modernism’s attempt to articulate human experience in a time of rapidly changing media, we begin to understand the transfigurations and dislocations of experience that have only intensified in our era. (1)

Rando traces a connection between the expansion of information and the media technology that deliver it and the individual’s experience of modernity.  The unprecedented volumes of information and the new media that accompanied them forced modernist authors to devise methods to represent and grapple with this condition of overload.  Paul Stephens, in The Poetics of Information Overload, argues that authors worked with and against existing information organization trends in reaction to the pressure these new conditions put on the human sensorium which tested:

the limits of cognition, perception, and memory (both personal and collective).  Rather than passively observing an end of history, or drowning in information, avant-garde writers have swum within and against the currents of information flows—demonstrating  not only agitation but also absorption. (Introduction)[1]

Modernist authors innovated on every conceptual and formal level, developing experimental poetic and narrative forms, dissolving divisions between high and low art, and experimenting with new ways of using print media, all as part of their work against the traditional information landscape.  However, these efforts to undermine established artistic and cultural values were accompanied by a renewed engagement with canonical works that comprise the Western literary tradition.

Indeed, many modernist authors, Joyce, H.D., and Pound among them, rather than charging forward, turned back and began integrating elements from throughout the literary and historical archive, with special emphasis on the Greek origins of the Western tradition.  In his 1923 article, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” T. S. Eliot famously labeled this practice of drawing connections between modernity and ancient texts the “mythic method,” which he attributed to Joyce’s use of Homer’s Odyssey as the basis for Ulysses: “In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. … It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (177).  Eliot suggests that the mythic method represents a new approach to history and the overwhelmingly large body of information it represents.  He focuses on the principles of order and control ancient texts provide for what he felt was a derelict and directionless modern era.  However, the practice of drawing connections between the conditions of modernity and elements from different times reflects a much more profound shift in how these authors orient their work to the archive.[2]  In Homer and Modernism, Leah Culligan Flack argues that this impulse to turn back to foundational texts from the past opened into an alternative type of information organization:

Despite insisting on its own novelty, modernist art depended on a vital relation to the past, by influence, contrast, or a combination of both.  Engaging the Homeric tradition helped these writers to reject the Futurist agenda to discard the past and to articulate a productive model of historical thinking that opened new channels of connection between the present and the past. (3)

Establishing these “channels of connection” between the conditions of modernity and ancient texts became essential tactics for these authors who saturated their works with elements from the literary and historical tradition.  These different avenues of connection bypass the intervening periods of history, instead drawing connections between elements according to shared characteristics, regardless of their provenance.  Modernist authors began to gather elements from diverse periods of history and different global traditions and represent them in their works with a volume and frequency unprecedented in Western literature.  In their works, Ulysses, Palimpsest, and A Draft of XXX Cantos, Joyce, H. D., and Pound integrated material from the literary tradition as part of a larger trend symptomatic of a shift in how authors and individuals of the modernist period oriented themselves not only toward their literary pasts, but toward information in general.  This reorientation to information prompted authors to expand the possibilities of print media and methods of using intertextual references in ways that predict later information technologies, in particular the database.

Joyce, H.D., and Pound use ancient materials in far more complex ways than simply paralleling narratives from different time periods.  In their otherwise very different works, each connection between an aspect of modernity and elements from other time periods represents an informational link based on associational relationships between the two elements.  This dynamic expands from relationships between elements from antiquity and modernity into an entire logic of associational connections between elements of information from throughout all periods of history.  For these authors, in particular, such strategies serve as partial solutions to the overwhelming size of the archive.[3]  In place of the chronologically organized archive in which each element is sorted and filed according to its historical provenance, Joyce, H.D., and Pound reformulated history as a network of interrelated fragments.  This fragmentation does not represent a shattering of time itself, but a reorganization of the rigidly chronological logic of the Western archive.  The historical model for information organization works according to a causal logic that connects elements to one another through a model that mimics our sense of the diachronic progression of linear time.  The mythic method, as these modernist authors actually used it, represents an informational logic which privileges relationships between elements over the representation of linear time.

The modernist tendency to refer back to the foundational texts in the tradition in this new way is part of a much larger set of cultural and technical changes in how individuals conceive of and interact with information.  Joyce, H.D. and Pound recognized that twentieth-century culture has inherited the inertial stability of an archive so massive and rigid that it threatened to suffocate their ability to realize new forms.  Such a crisis does not need more stories, poetry, and theory—more information—added to the archive in traditional modes, but instead a confrontation with the forms the archive itself takes.  Ulysses, Palimpsest, and the XXX Cantos, because of the complex literary, textual, and media effects they exhibit, represent a radical intervention in the logic by which information is organized and accessed. Modernist studies has isolated these literary and media effects as the gathering and arrangement of diverse intertextual materials for a long time.  This study adds to this body of work by arguing that these textual elements were assembled according to a definable associational logic, a practice which developed in reaction to the information overload.  Joyce, H.D., and Pound, experimented with integrated literary techniques, material media effects, and associational logic that together create texts that forecast the development of databases as a media platform and information organization method.

[1] Stephens traces the origin of the term “information overload” using Google Ngrams:

Google’s Ngram Viewer gives an idea of the increasing frequency with which the term appears in the Google Books database.  “Information overload” first began to appear in journals of psychology and organizational management around 1960.  The term is sometimes traced to Bertram Gross’s 1964 The Management of Organizations, but clearly circulated in a number of contexts prior to this. … Gross in turn cited Vannevar Bush’s 1945 “As We May Think” as the earliest theorization of the problem.  The rise of information theory in the 1940s, accompanied by figures such as Bush, Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, and Warren Weaver, brought with it far-reaching implications.  Like the computer itself, the postwar notion of information overload could be said to emerge at the complex intersection of military, corporate, and educational interests. (Introduction).

Stephens explicitly ties the overload of information to the expansion of technical sectors of information production and management, which he argues affected individuals making art in the period.

[2]  Despite his prescient recognition of the importance of these new methods for approaching literary history, Eliot’s model for integrating elements from the past into present literature fundamentally misunderstands the dilemma that information overload presents.  The archive’s very size makes what he prescribes as the author’s responsibility to the tradition impossible.  In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” T.S. Eliot writes that interaction with the tradition begins with

the historical sense … [which] involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and with it the whole literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. (956)

Eliot carefully conserves the “pastness” of the past, but also suggests that from the present, an author needs to internalize the “whole of literature” in order to discern her place in it.  It is important too, that Eliot sees the tradition beginning with Homer.  The information overload that confronted authors in the modernist period significantly complicated this model for interacting with the tradition.  This is not to suggest that Eliot’s essay speaks for modernism, or that he was necessarily correct in his assessment of the dynamics of borrowing from the past and the literary tradition’s function during the modernist period.  If anything, his approach to these questions is in line with his general cultural conservatism.  “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and to a lesser extent, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” have accumulated a certain purchase in the subsequent periods of literary criticism.  The printing of “Tradition” quoted above appears in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, a volume that selects representative examples of commentary and theory from each period stretching from Aristotle to contemporary radical feminism such as bell hooks.

[3] In her article, “Information Overload and Database Aesthetics” Kristin Veel clearly states the difference between the chronological and informational methods of organizing information in the archive:

The ‘principle of provenance’, according to which records of the same provenance should not be intermingled with records of other provenances, was established as the dominant organizational principle in the early nineteenth century.  It replaced the earlier ‘principle of pertinence’, according to which archives were arranged by their subject content, regardless of their provenance or original order.  In the second half of the twentieth century, the organization of information faced new challenges, as well as increased possibilities, with the advent of digital databases; stripped of its physical tangibility and digitized, the same record could be made accessible in more than one context, and both provenance and subject content were no longer necessarily mutually exclusive as organizational principles.  Databases thus increased the number of possible combinations of data.  Today, reflections on the organization of information in an archive are invariably linked closely to issues of information overload—a condition that databases are designed to counter at the same time as they contribute to it. (308)

Veel also points out that databases do not necessarily provide any actual solutions to information overload.  This is an important point, and one that is clearly obvious in the twenty-first century where the presence of databases seems to have had little effect on the intensity of information overload.

Eliot, T. S.  “Ulysses, Order and Myth.”  Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot.  Edited by Frank Kermode. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975, pp. 175-178.

Flack, Leah Culligan.  Modernism and Homer: The Odysseys of H. D., James Joyce, Osip Mandelstam, and Ezra Pound.  Cambridge UP, 2015.

Rando, David.  Modernist Fiction and the News.  Palgrave, 2011.

Stephens, Paul.  The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing.  U of Minnesota P, 2015.  Kindle E-book.  


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