restricted access A Portrait of the Snob: James Joyce and the Anxieties of Cultural Capital
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 774-799



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A Portrait Of The Snob:
James Joyce And The Anxieties Of Cultural Capital

Sean Latham


From the very moment of its publication, Ulysses has been a source of scandal. The novel's blunt treatment of sexuality, its formal affront to the conventions of realism, and its minute recording of bodily functions all evoked an outrage that won for Joyce the succès d'exécration (prize of revulsion) the nineteenth-century dandies so ardently desired. 1 Interwoven through this now famous history of obscenity, sexuality, slander, and self-abuse, however, has been a scandal rarely--if ever--commented upon: its inveterate snobbery. As dirty a secret as anything implied by Molly Bloom's "yes," it has long remained concealed behind a dazzling display of critical and theoretical acumen. The historical and institutional structures that have shunted this issue to the side, however, no longer command the same authority they once did. Writing in no less a forum than The New York Times, James Atlas could in 1997 freely indict Joyce and his fellow modernists as pretentious snobs whose works reach beyond the "ordinary reader" to become "the property of an elite" (41). Danis Rose's "reader's edition" of Ulysses has only further complicated the situation. Designed to introduce the novel to a non-academic audience, this text privileges content over form by adding punctuation to the stream-of-conscious narratives and generally simplifying the grammatical [End Page 774] complexity of the work. Largely dismissed by Joyce scholars, Rose's work suffers from the very snobbery he seeks to avoid, for his thorough-going editorial intervention implies that the novel is indeed beyond the reach of all but the most educated readers and must be radically altered to render it fit for a mass readership. It seems clear that as an icon of intellectual prestige, Ulysses no longer holds the powerful allure it once did. Rose and Atlas alike have helped to expose the text's deep entanglement in the flows of social, cultural, and even economic capital, rendering its identity as an aesthetic object indistinguishable from its iconic status as a sign of professional and intellectual accomplishment. With the structures of its reception and circulation increasingly exposed, Ulysses has now begun to emerge as a site of critical meditation on the limitations and pleasures afforded by the literary marketplace.

More generally, modernism--both as an aesthetic idea and as received array of texts--has been too long circumscribed by the cartography of what Andreas Huyssen has famously called the "great divide" between highbrow and mass culture. This Manichean split has produced an image of early twentieth-century canonical literature as a necessarily (though regrettably) "adversary culture" that excludes mass culture because it is a source of potential "contamination" (Huyssen vii). 2 In his analysis of the cultural field of literary production, Pierre Bourdieu constructs a similar geography wherein highbrow art emerges as the mirror image of the commodity-driven marketplace, but with the rules of "the economic world reversed" ("Field" 29). This structuralist account contends that elite culture is organized according to a hierarchy governed by cultural (and symbolic) rather than economic capital, where popular success actually becomes a mark of failure. Developing this approach in an Anglo-American vein, John Guillory suggests that the American New Critics exploited this fact to transform "literature [into] the cultural capital of the university," for "in discovering that literature was intrinsically difficult," students "also discovered in the same moment why it needed to be studied in the university" (172). 3 Formal density, textual dissonance, and the rejection of realist codes of representation all came to stand, in other words, for far more than evidence of an author's genius. The ability to decipher such complexities signified the reader's own accomplishment, providing him or her with a small but substantial cache of cultural capital born of what Baudelaire called "a feeling of joy at [one's] own superiority" (161). [End Page 775]

It is tempting to pursue the lines...


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