DigiTextual Publishing: Modernism

Why Modernism?

For my project investigating the value of digitized texts for pedagogy, I use the “Aeolus” chapter from that paragon of High Modernist elitist pretention and esoteric confusion: James Joyce’s Ulysses. Why use Modernism, and why Ulysses? From a practical standpoint, because I specialize in Anglo-American Modernism, with a particular familiarity with this novel, and a rather large number of my British Modernist colleagues assign the novel, in part or in whole, for post-secondary courses. From a theoretical standpoint, there are a variety of reasons. As Jessica Pressman notes, Modernist poetics and critical methodologies are both foundational for and complicated by electronic methods of storage, access, and reading of texts, and thus can provide useful insight for students into both hyperspace’s structure and the way it challenges traditional Modernist close reading practices. The “reciprocal intertextuality” of hyperspace (Mitra) demonstrates a similar textual interconnectivity to highly allusive Modernist works such as those by Eliot, Pound, and Joyce, and thereby fosters an understanding of meaning arising from intertextual conversation. As Stephen Ross and Jentery Sayers suggest, crowd-sourced annotation complicates the perceived “elitist” inaccessibility of many Modernist works (630); and the use of rapid-access, hyperlinked supplements for such works draws attention to the non-linear reading practices encouraged by hypertextuality more broadly.

There is also decent precedent and demonstrated potential for students to engage digitally in criticism on Modernist texts. Recent DH student projects – such as the collaborative “Digital Dubliners” by Joseph Nugent’s students at Boston College and individual projects by Jentery Sayers’s Spring 2015 English 507 course at the University of Victoria – demonstrate innovative, collaborative, dynamic criticism of Modernist texts which also require students to engage with contemporary electronic approaches to textual commentary and critique.

But beyond all of these, I use Ulysses because it is difficult. The peculiarity of terms (many Joyce’s inventions), the density of esoteric allusions and references, the complexity of the stream-of-consciousness interweaving of narrative and psychology, all are notable in comparison to most novels, and all challenge the reader’s ability to understand the narrative itself, let alone the critical commentary suggested by it. The potential for hyperlinked annotation – in terms of glossing vocabulary, explaining esoteric historical and cultural references, tracking the movement of characters across a map (which Nugent has done remarkably well in his “Walking Ulysses” project), etc. – is vast. Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated stands as evidence of the amount of annotation potential in text alone, numbering 694 pp. of terse references in a 7”x10” volume. With the additional multi-modality of hyperspace, this increases notably, as song references can be linked to audio files and references to significant architecture (e.g. Nelson’s Pillar) can be linked to image files.

And such hyperlinked annotations can heavily ease the accessibility of such texts which have long been considered too inaccessible for early undergraduates, or even many graduate students. I use the word “inaccessible” to differentiate from what I term “difficult,” and the distinction is important for the two elements of this kind of text. “Difficulty” refers to the conceptual depth and complexity of a work. Concepts like Heidegger’s Dasein or Derrida’s Hauntology or Deleuze and Guattari’s Body Without Organs are not expressed using particularly esoteric references or uncommon vocabulary – indeed, most people with a liberal arts education are familiar with Hamlet, Descartes, and the Oedipus complex, and could likely give a definition for nearly every word used in the theorists’ respective works – but the concepts are difficult to grasp for even the most gifted humanities students. “Accessibility,” on the other hand, refers to a familiarity with the materials used to express such concepts: words and references and what they may refer to. Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico is not “difficult” for anyone: once someone knows Latin well enough to read through it, or reads a translation into a language she understands, she will not likely have trouble understanding what the text is “saying” or paraphrasing it. It is, however, “inaccessible” to anyone who doesn’t know Latin, or whose Latin grammar and vocabulary is at a first-year level, as she cannot access much meaning even on the level of basic description and narrative. Similarly, a reader of the “Aeolus” chapter of Ulysses very well may not know what an Aeolian harp is (or, subsequently, how it relates this chapter to the character Aeolus from Homer’s Odyssey), who Horatio Nelson was, or the proposed connection Bloom tries to make between the Keyes advertisement and the Manx House of Keys (and, thereby, Irish Home Rule). Knowing this information, like knowing the vocabulary and grammar for a text in a given language, is fundamentally important to understand what the text says on a basic level. However, this does not inherently make it easy to parse out the ideas presented in the chapter – e.g. the complications of ideas about nationalism and nationality that arise between the Home Rule-influenced advertisement, Bloom’s comment “Ireland my country” meanwhile referencing his German-Jewish heritage, and Bloom’s comment that the Home Rule-proponent Joseph Nannetti “never saw his real country,” presumably drawing attention to his paternal-line Italian ethnicity. Indeed, merely conceiving of this issue in the text requires that the reader is familiar with the references being made. Accessibility really means a student has access to the semiotic field of reference upon which a text is drawing to construct meaning, which the difficulty of the text actually relies on. As Gail McDonald argues, hypertext editions can make these Modernist texts more accessible to students “without robbing [them] of the deep educative value of being confused.” I would go further and suggest that the increased accessibility hypertext can provide actually helps the texts confuse more efficiently.

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