- Advertising and Commodity Culture in Joyce
In this subtle and illuminating study, Garry Leonard argues that James Joyce’s fiction elevates the ephemeral and the everyday—popular culture, advertising, kitsch, fashion—above the objects and images that purport to express “eternal truth.” Despite some looseness in argumentation and organization, Leonard has produced an important contribution to modernist scholarship.
Drawing striking parallels between Stephen Dedalus’s aesthetic theories and Leopold Bloom’s advertising practices, Leonard’s introduction alerts us to the close relationship between modernist aesthetics and consumer discourse. Leonard seeks a middle ground between Frankfurt-school interpellation models and the “democracy of goods” paradigm, but instead seems to vacillate. In the introduction he declares that commodity culture offers a mode of rebellion against “hegemonic discourse” (neglecting the economic hegemony of capitalism that underwrites consumerism), but elsewhere he draws heavily on the totalizations of Louis Althusser and Jean Baudrillard. [End Page 1058]
The opening chapters treat religion and kitsch, respectively. Leonard’s concise and well-argued essay on advertising and religion highlights similarities between the two discourses but goes beyond these familiar analogies to demonstrate how both promulgate the myth of the autonomous self and promote ritualized practices as means of completing that self. Its cutesy title (“Kitschy, Kitschy Coup”) notwithstanding, his next chapter effectively employs Michel de Certeau’s distinction between “tactics” and “strategies” to clarify how Joyce’s characters attach personal meanings to mass-produced objects such as purses or clocks. When Leonard discusses kitsch items given as presents, however, he misses a key point: these objects aren’t priceless because they lack economic value, but precisely because they are gifts. Here his analysis could have been deepened by some attention to gift theory; here too he exaggerates the significance of ephemera for Joyce, whose immersion in canonical literary history may be unfashionable but remains at least as significant as pop cultural totems.
The next two chapters, offering dazzling discussions of pornography, performance, and desire, are much more persuasive, perhaps because they remain more closely engaged with the Joycean texts. Comparing the closing scene of “The Dead” with the biblical Annunciation in chapter 3, Leonard provides a highly nuanced analysis of the representation of desire in the late nineteenth century. He follows it with a thoughtful, sensitive reading of erotic performance and packaging in the “Nausicaa” episode of Ulysses. Wedding theory to close reading in exemplary fashion, this chapter is itself an outstanding performance.
Almost as successful is Leonard’s witty take on Molly Bloom’s “lifestyle.” His ingenious attention to such details as the Blooms’ shared use of “try” reveals how deeply consumerist versions of choice had permeated consciousness even a century ago. While Leonard strains a bit to link the Blooms’ domestic struggles to colonialism, and leans a little too heavily on Baudrillard, his agile style and broad knowledge of contemporary customs make this chapter an enlightening pleasure.
In his final chapter, Leonard argues that Stephen’s ahistorical, asexual aesthetics constitutes a hostile response to commodity culture that arises in part because he lacks both the economic wherewithal to participate in it and the experience of urbanity to thrive in it. Despite its originality, this section seems an odd way to end the book. It doesn’t really consummate his argument, and instead seems to have been [End Page 1059] excerpted from a different book only loosely related to the one we have been reading. This chapter also seems somewhat under-conceived: its allusions to Superman and Batman struck me as contrived, and its Simmelian ideas come not from Georg Simmel, but from a collection of critical essays about him. (This rather nonchalant attitude towards documentation is also displayed elsewhere—a misquotation of Matthew Arnold here, some inaccurate bibliographic entries there.)
Some might argue that Leonard’s relentless focus on relatively minor parts of Joyce’s texts do not adequately convey the experience of reading them. However, his attention to ephemera precisely reflects the book’s thesis: Joyce celebrates the everyday in order to write a history of “now” that at once shaped and responded to modernity...