Database Modernism: 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 changes.  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 and into 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)  

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.  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.  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.  

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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