Joyce and Celebrity


“Of all the literary celebrations that might blow up, why Joyce, why Ulysses, and why Bloomsday? The answer lies in the celebrity and cultural capital of the Joyce brand, the result of Joyce’s machinations and the way he’s been taken up in mainstream U.S. culture.”

Jonathan Goldman on the history of Bloomsday.

And here I thought I’d never have an occasion to put before the world the out-take or b-side or deleted scene (pick your media metaphor) from my dissertation contesting this particular author’s view of Joyce as celebrity. Happy Bloomsday, friends:

It is worth scrutinizing Goldman’s own literary practice. What character named “James Joyce” has his essay created? Goldman’s Joyce is a canny manipulator of the marketplace through discourse. He labors for the better part of a decade to construct an unprecedentedly complex novel for the purpose of calling attention to himself and accruing symbolic capital. His work is a screen for a will-to-power, a skein of more or less interesting irrelevancies organized for optimal, albeit covert, self-aggrandizement. The lineaments of a familiar figure emerge here: the self-branded consumer-culture avatar of homo economicus. Goldman’s implicit anthropology is conservative: its refusal to countenance any selfless motive behind the writing of Ulysses (which was, after all, a stunningly gratuitous act, given its personal costs—there were easier ways for Joyce to get noticed if all he wanted to be was noticed) suggests a Hobbesian world of omnipresent interpersonal war in which works of art or intellect are just so many weapons. This impression is intensified when Goldman offers no alternative to his revisionist Joyce, no other picture of the human to contemplate in his book—not Wilde or Stein or Chaplin, for all are artist-buccaneers, donning aesthetic masks to freeboot their way across media to fame like so many reality-TV contestants. But suspicion is like an acid that corrodes its container: consequently, Goldman’s readers may be unable to refrain from questioning his own motives in writing his own book.

I am here quarreling not with Goldman’s specific conclusions, but rather with the way they paradoxically entail the very impossibility of his own ability to arrive at them. To put it another way, if Joyce’s fiction is simply a replication at one strata of the ideology of another strata of early-twentieth-century culture undertaken for the universal motive of self-aggrandizement, then how is it that Goldman’s own criticism is not a further instance of this reduplication? And if it is, then how can it help anyone to read it, since its account of the modernist literature of celebrity will necessarily be dissolved into our own current literature of celebrity? The tautology proposed by the book’s title should, by the logic of its critical practice, lead to an infinite regress: Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity is the literature of celebrity. It is precisely because Goldman’s book is too insightful, too instructive, to be dismissed in this way that Goldman’s brand of criticism requires some acknowledgement that Joyce’s book, too, is insightful and instructive, rather than just a somewhat arbitrary example of a social trend that could have been analyzed in almost any other way (which, that is to say, doesn’t require literature for its analysis at all).

The philosopher Gillian Rose defines the kind of alternative path this dissertation follows in literary criticism. Rose challenges the historicist and culturalist theory according to which human beings are necessarily confined within their sign-systems and are therefore barred from making claims about anything—metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, politics—whose truth must be grounded outside those sign-systems. If there is no way to adjudicate between discourses with reference to a ground that transcends them, Rose goes on to show, then there is no way to argue for one political system over another or one aesthetic over another. If one cannot make a transcendent claim, then one cannot intervene in political argument at all:

When I claim that women’s experience has been silenced by the patriarchal tradition, which represents itself spuriously as universal, from where do I speak? From women’s particularity? Then how could I speak? I could only stutter. From patriarchy? Would it want to unmask itself? From sceptical faith, shaky but persistent, in critical reason? I bring the charge that reason’s claim remains unrealised from that transcendent ground on which we all wager, suspended in the air. (130)

If critical reason is only a ruse of authority, then authority simply cannot be criticized—it can only be absolutely rejected, in the name of one or another valorization of its supposed exterior (the schizophrenic, the unconscious, the primitive, the body, the volk, etc.), which would in turn render criticism, and perhaps even language itself, superfluous and diversionary. On the other hand, if authority can be criticized, then critical reason is not the sole property of authority at all. Like a pen or a hammer or a tradition, it can be wielded by and for whomever takes it up to use according to its end. Rose here argues in contrast to Audre Lorde’s oft-quoted radical slogan, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” that the tools (and, indeed, the house) do not belong to the master in any but a contingent and reversible sense.