Ulysses in Net-town

On Bloomsday, a portrait of James Joyce as a young Web-head.

Published June 16, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Ineluctable modality of the visible. Signatures of all things I am here to read.

Blue halo of computer screen, the rasping electronic siren song of the modem, Web browser stately and plump with the latest plug-ins a dreariodreama setting, glowing and very vidual. Nighttown eyes, the dregs of coffee, three a.m., just click on this one last link ... the proteiform graph. 404 -- File Not Found. Where are we at all? and whereabouts in the name of space? O, shite and onions.

James Joyce, patron saint of interactivity: He knew us, the Net-besotted, before we knew ourselves. The ideal reader suffering from the ideal insomnia. Omniscient mind of the omniscient narrator, paring his fingernails while the professors are kept busy for centuries hunting down the endless layered references to cinema, music, theology, philosophy, literature, history, science, newspapers, the liturgy, sex, women's magazines, women's underwear and the smoky, mannish interiors of Dublin's innumerable pubs. The Joycean canon: those protean, nonlinear, interlinked, self-referential, open-ended works.

Thus did Joyce beget hypertext, argue the trendier academics and theorists of the '90s. Joyce -- not those earnest, pocket-protected men who grappled with computer code in the '60s and '70s -- was the true father of the Internet. If Joyce were writing today, he would have chosen hypertext. And not only was "Ulysses" before its time in literary terms; it is also, extravagantly, the |ber-hypertext.

In the early to mid-'90s -- when the Internet and its most visual element, the Web, began their phenomenal growth -- the always well-populated world of Joycean criticism saw a spike of papers and presentations eagerly arguing the Joyce-hypertext link. They had technohip titles ripe for parody: "The Cybernetic Plot of Ulysses," "Beyond the Orality/Literacy Dichotomy: James Joyce and the Pre-History of Cyberspace," "Phoenix Ex Machina: Joyce's Solicitation of Hypertext." A journal called Hypermedia Joyce Studies appeared in 1995 -- though it lasted only one issue.

The footnotes featured the usual postmodern suspects: Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan. But they also repeatedly referenced the digerati, the new elite of techno-intellectuals, like Marshall McLuhan, the grand old man of media and communications theory; Stewart Brand, the founder of the Well and chronicler of MIT's Media Lab; and author William Gibson, who coined the word "cyberspace."

McLuhan in particular, the most academically weighty of the cybercrowd, is invoked as a legitimizing touchstone for Joyce's born-again techno-knowingness. "Marshall McLuhan described Joyce as a clairvoyant in terms of communication and technology," notes Darren Tofts, senior lecturer in literature at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, in one paper.

"The figure who perhaps looms largest in current thinking about our new information technologies, Marshall McLuhan, made clear the great degree to which his insights were inspired by Joyce, and by ['Finnegans Wake'] in particular," agrees Rob Callahan, a Joycean doctoral candidate at Temple University who has a masters from University College, Dublin (Joyce's alma mater). He co-edited the solitary issue of the Joyce journal (about to be resurrected) and maintains Work in Progress, an exhaustive Joycean resource Web site.

Certainly, nearly everyone who works seriously with hypertext and loves Joyce agrees that there are overwhelmingly hypertextual, mixed-media qualities to Joyce's writing. "Is there a more multimedia work than 'Ulysses'?" asks Michael Joyce, who lectures in literature at Vassar College in upstate New York and is also a preeminent author of literary hypertext (his electronic novella, "afternoon, a story," is one of the genre's standards). "Think of the men with the placards, the phantasm of Nighttown, the Strand."

In "Ulysses," Joyce perfectly captured "the polyvocality of our experience" in the 20th century, he says. "The work as it stands -- the linguistic, the temporal, the syntactic, the semiotic elements -- were the warp upon which Joyce wove what was understandably the original hypertext."

Would Joyce have embraced hypertext as a literary format, were he writing today? "I think Joyce would have welcomed the ability to play language upon language, not only to evoke it but to literally represent it, to allow language to drift and fragment," says Michael Joyce.

"He would have both been drawn to the ways in which technology reshapes our use of language, and he would have hated them, too," believes Callahan. "The Web's polyphonic qualities -- its boisterous babel of voices -- these Joyce would have found tremendously appealing."

Yet some academics seem laughably anxious to ascribe levels of '90s knowingness to the writer that Joyce hardly could have had. One writer, in the kind of prose that would have surely unleashed Joyce's satirical razor, suggests that Joyce was even busy envisioning virtual reality: "Joyce ... recognizes that a trend towards virtual reality is characteristic of the electro-mechanically or technologically mediated modes of communication." Does he, indeed?

In contrast, Michael Joyce believes that James Joyce so sweepingly and profoundly altered the way in which we see and understand the world around us that we could eventually create hypertext, a way of thinking and associating in nonlinear fashion. "Hypertext doesn't spring out of nowhere," he says. "Hypertext is a convergence of things." Certainly, what Michael Joyce says he values most about hypertext as a literary form -- "its depth, its sense of space, its ability to express the richness and multiplicity of our lives" -- sounds like a mini-summary of "Ulysses."

Callahan sees a similar relationship: "Hypertext is simply the technological means by which we have come to be able to inscribe and read texts such as Joyce's," he says. "Like hypertext, Joyce's great works eschew linear progression, are densely allusive and intricately self-referential, and invite readers to wander, to play, to explore."

Each of these scholars is wary of attempts to take the father of hypertext and force hypertext upon his pre-hypertext -- in other words, to create interactive versions of "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake." Michael Joyce believes this would force the text to be what it is not -- that despite the nonlinear structure of "Ulysses," the fact that it is written as a sequence of pages, in print, is essential to it as a work of art.

Callahan acknowledges the way in which the interactive element of hypertext can be distracting: "What it means to translate Joyce's work into electronic hypertext is another matter, of course, because one of the concerns is that such a translation might actually flatten the texts, once a reader is faced with a screen-full of bright hyperlinks, whereas she previously had to intuit and construct her own connections."

Nonetheless, several hypertextual versions of "Ulysses" and "Finnegans Wake" reside on the Web ("A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" either isn't as hypertextually inviting or doesn't intrigue the professors to the same extent). Indeed, whatever the formal relationship between Joyce and hypertext, he is certainly the most omnipresent of Irish writers -- and of writers in general -- out on the Net. That old Internet metric of popularity, a search engine scan for Joyce on the Net (using HotBot), throws up more than 15,000 references. Samuel Beckett is well behind with 6,000, while Seamus Heaney draws 3,200. (Still, U2 elicits nearly 98,000 pages.)

So, James Joyce, "Ulysses" and hypertext: Is there a cybernetic plot? Is he the penman of the pre-history of cyberspace? "We're taught to see what we think we see," says Michael Joyce. "Right now we're in the thrall of technological determinism."

Hmmmm. Time then, perhaps, to hit the computer's "off" button, pull "Ulysses" down from the shelf and, during today's annual celebration of Bloomsday, in honor of the father of hypertext, get reading what the hypertextual crowd these days would call the "fibre" version of the work. and yes I said yes I will Yes.

By Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington is a technology writer in Dublin whose work appears regularly in the Guardian, the Irish Times and other publications.

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