How The Wake Anticipates Digital Interface

Wake DiagramThe genesis of my dissertation idea resulted from some thinking with my committee about the overlap between database as a textual form and literary modernism.  The early exploratory readings included Lev Manovich’s book, The Language of New Media and the then newly released How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis by N. Katherine Hayles.  Manovich has many interesting things to say about how databases operate, but of primary interest to my project as it relates to modernist literature is how he opposes the database to narrative.  Though it has evolved into an investigation of comparative textual interfaces as much as database at this point, the main argument of my dissertation will demonstrate how the associational logic of the database operates in the works of H. D., Pound, and Joyce.  After reading Manovich and then Hayles’ critique of his use of Saussure in theorizing the database, an interesting side project emerged that I’ll try and cover in this blog post.

Manovich defines the database, via the computer science discipline, simply as “a structured collection of data” (218).  However, he complicates this broad definition: “the data stored in a database is organized for fast search and retrieval by a computer and therefore, it is anything but a simple collection of items…The user’s experience of such computerized collections is, therefore, quite distinct from reading a narrative” (218).  The non-sequential characteristic of the database is less a technological substrate than a method of organization and this is essential since it allows for “fast search and retrieval” (218).

The search and retrieval function of the database is what interrupts the narrative logic because items do not relate to one another by advancing a linear story or creating an image, that is, the text doesn’t proceed according to a causal logic, but by the associative rules of the database (there is a great deal more to say about this difference). Manovich uses Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic theory from Course in General Linguistics as a model to describe how a database retrieves information through associational relations with a given query. Here is Manovich on his application of Sassure’s twin concepts of paradigm and syntagm:

Elements in the syntagmatic dimension are related in praesentia, while elements in the paradigmatic dimension are related in absentia.  For instance, in the case of a written sentence, the words that comprise it materially exist on a piece of paper, while the paradigmatic sets to which these words belong only exist in the writer’s and reader’s minds.

In other words, in Saussure’s formulation, the syntagmatic is the material that is actually present on the page and the paradigmatic is that information that is potentially (but not) present through associational relationships in the writers’ and readers’ minds.  Manovich feels that the database “reverses this relationship.  Database (the paradigm) is given material existence, while narrative (the syntagm) is dematerialized.  Paradigm is privileged, syntagm is downplayed.  Paradigm is real; syntagm is virtual.”

Hayles points out that “[t]his influential formulation, despite its popularity is seriously flawed…in semiotics, the alternative choices of the paradigm interact with the inscribed word precisely because they are absent from the page, although active in the reader’s imagination as a set of related terms” (180).  The presence/absence polarity Hayles insists on is does not apply to databases:

databases are not paradigmatic in this sense.  In a relational database configured as columns and rows, the data values of a row constitute the attributes of a given record, while the columns represent the kinds of attributes itemized for many different records.  In neither the rows nor the columns does a logic of substitution obtain; the terms are not synonyms or sets of alternative terms but different data values. (180)

As Hayles points out, a direct reversal of the textual dynamic of narrative doesn’t bring textual media to the database.  I am proposing that this debate between Manovich and Hayles is an extremely fruitful way to begin a discussion about how different media present information.  However, rather than seeing narrative and database as punctually opposed terms, I would shift the discussion the bundle of activities that take place when the reader/user interacts with books and screens as interfacial technologies.   Switching to an analysis of interface helps because the primary task of an interface is precisely the negotiation of the presence and absence of information that Saussure, Manovich, and Hayles so carefully describe.  Rather than opposites, the two interfaces afford and demand different activities from their creators and users.


fig. 1: associational constellation of ‘enseignement’

Saussure says that the syntagmatic terms on the page have paradigmatic terms swirling around them: “Any given term act a the centre of a constellation, from which connected terms radiate ad infintum.” Saussure is describing associations that radiate outward from a stable word on a page, and he provides a diagram of how this works for the word “enseignement” (fig. 1).  It is important to underscore that Saussure is describing how associations operate for a page of print, but it is also worth mentioning that he is expressing the impulse to represent the absent elements swirling around what is on the page.  The digital interface, which presents the reader/user with the information in a database or even from a book as in Google Books, take advantage of the relationship between the paradigmatic and syntagmatic by anticipating associational relations between textual elements.  In other words, the information is made present based on the types of relations Saussure insists are only virtual ones.  This anticipation of the reader/user’s associations is the textual work that digital interfaces do, they realize Saussure’s desire to identify related elements through textual relationships.  It is as if digital interfaces mobilize the relational network Saussure describes with the “constellation” of connected terms.  Instead of radiating outward, a digital interface brings the associated elements to the interface and, consequently, to the reader/user.

To further complicate this argument, my feeling is that several modernist authors use the print page interface to forecast the type of textual effects digital interfaces realize.  These authors see beyond the horizon of the book (or more precisely the stable word on the page) toward the type of operations and textual effects digital interfaces perform.  As an example, I’ll use Finnegans Wake because this won’t appear in my dissertation and I want to work through this idea.

I would argue that The Wake, through portmanteau words, symbolic clusters surrounding characters (HCE=>Finn Macool=>Fish=>Humpty Dumpty, etc.), and the repetition of events throughout history (the Judeo-Christian Fall, Humpty Dumpty’s fall, HCE’s sexual transgression, etc.) is making these associative relations present; the text, simultaneously operates on multiple scales to perform the search and retrieval function Manovich argues is fundamental to the associational logic of the database.  Through associational channels based on a word, character, or event that takes place in the text, “other” textual elements are “searched” for and then “retrieved” and made present to the textual interface.  To be clear, I’m not arguing Saussure’s syntagmatic/paradigmatic schema applies.  I am arguing that Joyce is experimenting with exactly the type of associational “constellations” the Saussure diagrammed in fig. 1.  These effects are difficult to identify because they appear on the stable print page (though even a cursory look at genetic analyses of The Wake resemble a search and retrieval dynamic).  The reader/user is not dealing with an absence/presence polarity because the assocational elements are present on the page (though of course, more associations are always hovering).  The question is how and why they appear there and what type of logic of information presentation they exhibit. (In an entirely different post, I would argue that interface analysis of any kind should privilege questions about how and why information is present over that information’s hermeneutic meaning.)  Here is a portmanteau word,  I snatched from The Wake:

fig. 2: meanderthalltale word cloud

fig. 2: meanderthalltale word cloud

“[M]eanderthalltale” (FW 19.25) is an agglutination of at least the five elements I’ve represented in fig. 2.  What I’m describing is fundamentally different from what Saussure diagrams in fig. 1 because the associations he describes are strictly linguistic relations within a solitary language (French).  The types of association Joyce uses work in a similar, but much less rigorous fashion.  They include aural polyglottal puns, thematic associations, word disfigurement, orthographic correspondences, etc.  However, my point is that the impulse is exactly the same: Joyce is trying to account for the associational elements swirling around a given word.  However, instead of maintaining the opposition between the presence of what is on the page and the associational elements, Joyce anticipates the associations and makes them present, retrieves them to the interface, to create a new type of writing which exhibits many of the characteristics of the database aesthetic Manovich describes.  The entirety of The Wake proceeds in this fashion.  In the same way that associational elements are made present in the portmanteau words, characters and events such as HCE and his sexual misconduct, function to bring other similar characters and situation to the text as if when Joyce thought of the character and the story he also thought of all the other similar characters and stories from throughout literary history.  Thus, based on these associational relations, these elements become part of The Wake.

In The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducability, Walter Benjamin says “The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form.”  The argument of my dissertation is that modernism is one of these “critical epochs,” but different from the previous ways we’ve discussed these artistic aspirations.  A few authors aspire to textual effects that directly influence our contemporary digital culture.  The “new art” form these authors aspire to through the book is an engineering of a new type of interface that could only be fully realized with the dynamism and creator/user interactivity digital technology provides.

Obviously, there is a great deal more to develop here with regard to The Wake and with modernism more generally.  I am also in the process of learning to discuss the interface as it relates to different textual media and so am reading and working with the significant number of books now appearing on these topics.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. N. p., 1969. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. University Of Chicago Press, 2012. Print.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Print.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge (Mass.); London: The MIT Press, 2001. Print.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics (Open Court Classics). N. p., 2008. Print.


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