June 22, 2005

Joyce as hypertext: The digital age followed in his 'Wake'

ITHACA, N.Y. -- James Joyce would have been right at home in 21st-century digital culture. He died in 1941, before the birth of the computer age, but his work can be seen as both a blueprint of contemporary hypermedia and a rich source for hypertextual applications, several scholars suggested at the 2005 North American James Joyce Conference, held June 14-18 at Cornell.

In his playful and painstaking reinvention of language, Joyce wove layers of literary and cultural references together more deftly and extensively than any other writer before or since. His works -- especially "Finnegans Wake" -- have required thorough decoding and annotation, in addition to repeated readings, for many generations of scholars and readers.

In "Let scholarment and all Malthusists go hang," his paper on the notoriously difficult "Ulysses" chapter "Oxen of the Sun," independent scholar James F. Lowe of Newport, N.H., reiterated the suggestion of one critic that the ideal reader of "Oxen" would have at his disposal "pages of notes, structured like a database and navigated by a lightning-fast Boolean search."

In his paper on digital media and Joyce, Donald Theall of Trent University in Canada spoke of a "hypertextual vision of the world" in "Finnegans Wake," which the author began writing in 1923 and published in 1939 -- "the dawn of the digital age," Theall said.

"You can see him generating a whole new set of languages ... [H]is last book emerges at a key moment of transition in technological history, a culminating juncture," Theall said. Joyce's lifetime bridged the eras of traditional classical thought and modernism, he explained, between "a 19th-century post-enlightened world and a post-electric integration of poetics and the arts."

Poets and artists of the early 20th century showed in their work the impact of electricity and other recent advancements in technology, mathematics, thermodynamics and language, Theall said, and "The 'Wake' is central to this prehistory of digiculture." 

Annalisa Volpone, of the University of Perugia, Italy, explored hypertext and texture in both "Finnegans Wake" and former Cornell professor Vladimir Nabokov's novel "Pale Fire."

"They share the same literary databases -- the two texts have more than one intersection" in their structure and style of narration, she said. Both works represent "a fixed reality completely out of control," and both authors "offer a discourse on the adventure of writing." 

In Joyce, "the meanings of the words rely on the reader's response to them," she said. "This is the 'Wake's' biggest paradox. The reader seems to have the power to change the text."

Volpone also noted that the ancient Celtic Book of Kells is "one of the 'Wake's' major hypertexts."

Michael Groden, of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, talked about the hypermedia "Ulysses" project he headed at the University of Buffalo. A prototype of the book's "Proteus" chapter in annotated digital text was completed with the help of a Mellon grant, but after the Joyce estate asked for $2 million just to begin discussions on use of the text, the project was suspended in the fall of 2003. 

Digital means may well offer the quickest way for visual and multimedia artists to interpret Joyce. Ian Hays of Coventry University in England used photo-editing software to create his multi-layered visual collages interpreting Joyce's works, as filtered through such critical theorists as philosophers Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida and artist Marcel Duchamp.

"Imagination is necessary," Hays said. "The work only seems to function in the mind. One has to work with the incompleteness and uncertainty one finds in Joyce, Duchamp and Derrida."

Hays' digital paintings show DNA strands, electrical circuits, drains, Duchamp's creations, text overlaid on photographs of Joyce and others, tesseracts [four-dimensional hypercubes] that lead off in different directions -- a virtual information overload. "Everything interconnects," Hays said. "I still don't understand it, but I'll get there eventually. Art is an accumulative thing, not just something you put on a wall in a museum. I tell students to keep conversations going -- that's what it's about."

Hays said the software made the process extremely easy, as he had been keeping notes and drawings on these ideas since 1992. "If I had to paint an idea in the studio, it took something like two years," he said.