Below is a very first draft of my Joyce chapter introduction.  This will evolve significantly, but should provide an idea of where the chapter is headed.  

Joyce’s Ulysses: A Database Narrative

Of all the fields of discourse that engage with Joyce’s Ulysses, the media studies approach continues to be among the most persistent and voluminous.  These studies include detailed analyses of the media objects that appear in the text, examining how phonographs, newspapers, advertisements, and other media function within the book.  Critics also discuss what type of media object Ulysses itself is.  In some senses, this debate closely relates to questions of genre; for example, T. S. Eliot, in his 1923 essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” argues that the category of the novel will no longer suffice to define Ulysses.[1]  This sense that the text represents some type of new species has surfaced since its publication and continues to be discussed in contemporary criticism.  Joyce’s own comments about the text, that it was an encyclopedia, an epic, an anatomy,[2] all contribute to the difficulty critics have had in agreeing on what Ulysses is.  Joyce experiments with hyper-realist depictions of experience using the stream-of-consciousness technique, then amplifies the avant-garde experimentation by fragmenting the text into multiple styles in which the “story” is by turns filtered through and interrupted by.  Finally, this textual diversity is complicated by the massive amount of intertextual material appearing in the text.  Facts about turn of the century Dublin, Catholicism, literature, cosmology, rhetoric, linguistics, and any number of other fields all find their way into Ulysses.  This says nothing of the role of Homer’s Odyssey, on which Joyce based multiple aspects of his novel.  Not only are critics trying to account for the artistic uniqueness of the text, but also how it manages and presents information, and these questions lead into discussion surrouding the materiality of the book it is printed on.

Because novels and the book are so closely intertwined, the sense that Ulysses continually transforms introduces a tension with of print media.  Michael Groden describes this tension as it surfaces throughout Joyce’s work: “Joyce was acutely aware that the words he was writing as Ulysses would eventually be published as pages in a book. … Joyce worked both with and against the possibilities of printed words and pages as much as he could and extending those possibilities when the words and pages seemed unable to do what he wanted” (161).  Groden neatly expresses this prevailing sense that Joyce’s work differs enough from other print texts that he was imagining something beyond the confines of his medium, creating friction between the elements of information that comprise the text and their arrangement on the resistant physical surface.  Joyce’s deliberate foregrounding of his medium prompts some critics to view his work as technical apparatus rather than just an imaginative story about a day in Dublin.[3]  For instance, Hugh Kenner says, “[T]he text of Ulysses is not organized in memory and unfolded in time, but both organized and unfolded in what we may call technological space: on printed pages for which it was designed from the beginning,” and that “”[t]here is something mechanical, Joyce never lets us forget, about all reductions of speech to arrangements of twenty-six letters.  We see him playing in every possible way with spatial organization of printed marks” (35, 47).  The constructedness of Ulysses that Groden and Kenner highlight stands as one of the main focuses of media-centered Joyce criticism.  Many critics, however, take this further, claiming Joyce’s work exhibits the effects of information media in ways that eerily predict the twenty-first century digital media landscape.

The conviction that Joyce’s work forecasts digital information technology is so pervasive that in 1994 Rob Callahan and Louis Armand started the online journal Hypermedia Joyce Studies.[4]  Hypermedia and hypertext, though a now somewhat dated digital media model, consist of links between different elements of information that are not necessarily presented sequentially.[5] This approach captures a certain dynamic of Joyce’s work, but falls short because everyone who reads Joyce’s work agrees there are links between the elements without having to invoke comparisons with hypermedia.  A truly useful media comparison would acknowledge that there are relationships between informational elements in the texts, but also better describe the nature of those relationships.  In her 2014 book, Digital Modernism, Jessica Pressman makes a different comparison between digital media and Ulysses.  In discussing the “Ithaca” episode, she outlines what she calls the “database aesthetic”:

[The “Ithaca”] section of Ulysses resembles a database or, more specifically, it depicts the experience of retrieving information from a database.  Its formal structure of query and response, and the resulting aesthetic effect of this format, serves to focus attention on how information is processed … The larger point is that Joyce’s formal conceit, what I am calling a ‘database aesthetic,’ serves to promote questions about how data is processed; it illuminates the operating structure of the information-processing structure. (110)

I intend to pursue this comparison much further.  The database as a media form represents a useful model for conceptualizing the operations of Ulysses because, as Pressman argues, it illuminates structural operations that resemble the information retrieval dynamics that are seldom associated with print media.  However, the database comparison helps in a more profound way.  Because they organize and present elements of information according to an associational logic, databases feature the structural links like hypertext, but those links are by nature composed of informational relationships shared by the elements they connect.  Comparing Ulysses with databases accounts for its machinic characteristics, its apparent ability to process information, but more than a strictly structural metaphor (such as the formal query and response structure in “Ithaca”) comparison with a database allows critics to define the logic behind the links throughout all of Ulysses.  Defining this logic makes it clear that not only does the database aesthetic operate throughout the entire text, but it is the expression of a certain modernist phenomenon of information overload.

The database aesthetic becomes most visible in those areas where Joyce departs from the narrative of the text and overloads the pages of the novel with extended swaths of seemingly irrelevant information.  These sections expose the associational logic of the database because the appearance of the information cannot be attributed to the narrative logic that focuses on the story of Stephen and Bloom.  In this sense, for Joyce, the aesthetics of the database are closely intertwined with the aesthetics of information overload.  As Ulysses transformed from a realist narrative into the informationally overloaded text of the later experimental episodes, Joyce was no longer following typical narrative structures in which action and conflict resolution play out in predictably terminal patterns, tracing an arc through a beginning, middle, and an end.  Shifting from narrative to associational logic freed Joyce to integrate information into Ulysses according to an open-ended model with the potential to accumulate information indefinitely.  Joyce discovered that associational logic had a nearly infinite capability to connect individual elements, every word, idea, and historical and literary figure, and circumstance became charged with the potential to connect with an infinity of other related elements as Joyce encountered them in research and daily life.  However, rather than bisecting Ulysses into separate narrative and associational sections, careful analysis of the associational logic in the later episodes reveals an identical impulse was at work from Joyce’s earliest ideas for Ulysses.  Joyce’s associations between Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey served as the initial opening into the associational logic that eventually came to dominate the text.

This chapter will begin by recontextualizing how The Odyssey determines the text of Ulysses.  In order to examine the database aesthetic, it is necessary to begin with the “Ithaca” episode where it functions most clearly, and from these examples read back through the earlier episodes to discover subtler manifestations of its presence.  Next, I propose we think of Homer’s text as an executable program Joyce put into place for identifying, organizing, and then presenting the elements of information that comprise the text.  From the beginning, Joyce used elements from The Odyssey in a fluid fashion, selecting elements to fulfill narrative parallels Homer’s text.  He also isolated individual informational elements from The Odyssey and used them as catalysts for generating non-narrative aspects of each episode, such as style, themes, colors, organs, etc.  This model demonstrates that the experimental sections of Ulysses, where information seems to elbow the narrative aside, were an expansion of the logic behind Joyce’s initial impulse to associate Ulysses with The Odyssey.  Next, I use genetic techniques to demonstrate that, as the volume of information Joyce was including in Ulysses began to exceed his ability to manage it, he developed increasingly complex and codified methods of information gathering, organization, and presentation that, operating in concert, not only resemble, but function precisely as databases do, complete with tables and encoded information processing functions.  I close this chapter by examining the close relationship between the database aesthetic and Ulysses as an expression of modernist period’s culture of information overload.  The open-ended nature of associational logic unleashed Joyce’s irreverent and playful impulses to follow the chain of associations to comical levels while also expressing the conditions of modernity in which each individual’s story is continually buried beneath an unceasing accumulation of information.  Joyce’s composition process reveals that his progress through the novel, from the earliest notes to the most baroque information management strategies he employed for the informationally dense later episodes, proceeded according to the pre-established structure Joyce put in place by basing the novel on The Odyssey.  This results in a text that is the sum of these multiple processes that all, like databases, operate according to associational relationships between the pieces of information that are organized, related, and then presented through an interface.

[1] Eliot, “Ulysses Order and Myth.”  The Dial, 1923.

[2] Where did he say this?

[3] These critics all characterize Ulysses and Finnegans Wake as machines or Joyce as an engineer: Throughout his writings on Joyce Donald Theall, particularly in his article, “James Joyce—Literary Engineer.” argues that Joyce is literally an engineer.  Clive Hart, Jacques Derrida, and others have made similar assertions with varying degrees of literalness.

[4] Of course, almost all the critics also publish work on Joyce and digital technology outside of HJS, but the journal’s’ existence testifies to the need for a platform for the material.  Both within and without the HJS there is a massive amount of scholarship on Joyce and digital media.

[5] While opinions are by no means uniform, many critics who cast Joyce’s work as a precursor to digital information technology default to comparisons of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake with hypermedia.  Darren Tofts expresses this tendency: “Joyce’s importance in the prehistory of cyberculture is, arguably, nowhere better illustrated than in relation to hypertext” (99).#  However, several critics have also expressed misgivings about the usefulness of comparing Joyce’s work with hypermedia.  Though the comparison does help conceptualize the links that exist throughout the text, comparing Ulysses with hypermedia does not answer any meaningful questions about how the elements in the text relate to one another.  Armand says, “It may be that the involutions of discussion about hypertext, and Joycean hypertext in particular, are equally linked to the tautological nature of this formula: non-sequential writing — in which case to evoke hypertext at all is already a redundant gesture; a rhetorical exercise in over-categorisation and schematisation” (loc2161).  Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext, describes it only as “non-sequential writing.” (Dream Machines 47).  I analyze the usefulness of hypertext comparisons for each of these authors more fully in the my introduction.

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

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)


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


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


The European Society for Textual Scholarship

%d bloggers like this: