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"Questioning Things": A Report on the Third Annual James Joyce Research Colloquium, Dublin, Ireland, 22-24 April 2010
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"Questioning Things":
A Report on the Third Annual James Joyce Research Colloquium, Dublin, Ireland, 22-24 April 2010

If the papers presented at the Third Annual James Joyce Research Colloquium are any indication, things are on the rise in Joyce studies. Emphasizing the importance of the object in literature, "thing" theory has come to prominence through Susan Stewart's On Longing, Douglas Mao's Solid Objects, Bill Brown's A Sense of Things, Elaine Freedgood's The Ideas in Things, and John Plotz's Portable Property.1 Recent Joyce events also indicate a renewed interest in materiality, such as John Nash's plenary talk on "Character, Commodity, Object" at the 2009 North American James Joyce Conference in Buffalo or the "James Joyce in the Nineteenth Century" conference in association with the "Consumer Culture, Advertising and Literature in Ireland, 1848-1921 Project" held at Durham University in April 2010.

Scholars at this year's Dublin colloquium, such as Nicholas Allen and Vike Plock, drew on thing theorists to argue for the importance of analyzing objects in Joyce's texts. Through approaches of genetic criticism and sociohistorical analysis, Luca Crispi and Anne Fogarty demonstrated how the "things" of manuscripts and social documents illuminate our understanding of narrative form. These papers all had one thing in common: they used objects to trace aesthetic or stylistic developments in Joyce's work. Thus, methodologies emphasizing materiality—thing theory, genetic criticism, and sociohistorical analysis—nevertheless are doing so in service of a type of literary criticism that once might have been considered "formal" or "textual" critique. If there is a renewed emphasis on materiality in Joyce studies, then it is examined alongside an analysis of literary form.

Nicholas Allen's opening plenary talk on "Broken Joyce: A Portrait of 1916" argued that an excess of objects in Joyce's texts registers marks of imperial presence. For Allen, objects are not a singular source for meaning, but they can nevertheless represent exchange. Referring to Dublin as an already militarized city by 1916, the year of the Easter Rising and A Portrait's publication, Allen asked what it means to read A Portrait as an imperial, instead of postcolonial, text. By seeing Ireland as part of a global exchange of objects facilitated by imperial trade, Allen invited reconsideration of A Portrait as a text that engages with the redefinition of value and order that the conflicts of World War I brought into sharp focus. In exploring the architecture of material representation through Joyce, a prehistory of modernism emerges.

In "Object Lessons: Bloom and His Things," Vike Plock asked what things in "Ithaca" can teach us about character. Drawing on Stewart's [End Page 12] argument in On Longing about the emotional currency of the souvenir, Plock proposed that objects paradoxically and simultaneously signify for characters an excess of miscellaneous material and, therefore, detachment from objects, while these same objects also trigger unpleasant emotional drives. Plock argued that, for Bloom, inanimate things, such as Milly's moustache cup or Molly's clothing, have "auxiliary functions in generating intimacy." Thus, in Plock's view, objects—as unique, familiar, and immediate items assembled in the text—negotiate desire and deferral for Bloom and also for the reader as he or she encounters a character's plotline through things.

Hearing Plock's brilliant analysis of "Ithaca," and the stimulating work of Crispi, Fogarty, and Sam Slote on the same episode, demonstrates the value of this type of colloquium, which brings top scholars to Dublin to present their new research. The colloquium focuses on a theme for one day out of three ("Ithaca" this year), a strategy combining a multiplicity of approaches with each scholar's specialized knowledge. Generous scholarships covering the travel expenses of graduate students ensure spirited and collegial discussions. Particularly generative were the connections between Crispi's and Fogarty's papers. Both demonstrated how Joyce constructed the narrative structure of "Ithaca" as a catechism, thus investigating a relatively unexplored terrain in nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship: the economy of the question and the way Joyce, in particular, uses interrogatives as a framing method.

Focusing on the "Ithaca" manuscript purchased by the National Library of Ireland in 2002, Crispi...