Database Modernism: Introduction

[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.  

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Text and Medium: Intro to Digital Humanities

ENGL 2393, The University of Tulsa

Posts on the Penman

An Iowa Joycean's Musings on the Hilarious, Irreverent Irish Genius

rasmuskleisnielsen.net

an online business card, entry point, and space for musings

The Digital HuMannist

English PhD student wields laptop, wants to talk about it.

Social Media Collective

Hosted for Microsoft by Wordpress. © 2011-2016 Microsoft

Ragman's Circles

Talking about what the matter was

Modernist Fragmentation and After

International Postgraduate Conference, Princeton University, September 29-30 2016

This and That Continued

Jenny Diski - Writing and stuff.

Parrots Ate Them All

A blog about Stevie Smith and the art of the aphorism.

New Readia

WordPress site of Nicholas M Kelly, PhD, Lecturer in Rhetoric at the University of Iowa, literature, media, and digital culture scholar

Stewart Varner

scholarship, libraries, technology

Media Theory of/for the present

graduate seminar, UC Santa Barbara (Winter 2016)

Woodbine

An experimental hub in Ridgewood, Queens for developing the skills, practices, and tools for building autonomy in the Anthropocene.

The Zero-Waste Chef

No packaging. Nothing processed. No waste.

The Concept Lab

A three year research project at the University of Cambridge

Manicule

☛ Thoughts on the Eighteenth Century, Daniel Defoe, and Digital Humanities

ESTS

The European Society for Textual Scholarship

%d bloggers like this: