restricted access “Addicted to the lubric a little”: Spectacle, Speculation, and the Language of Flow in Ulysses
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“Addicted to the lubric a little”:
Spectacle, Speculation, and the Language of Flow in Ulysses

It is a truth critically acknowledged that the economics in Joyce’s Ulysses are rooted in, and routed through, the commodity form. In his analysis of the novel as a response to the crises of liberal capitalism—one in which, as he puts it, “every idea of cultural system goes awry”—Franco Moretti argues that cultural and social relationships in Ulysses “appear only through the prism of consumption,” and that the equivalence-before-the-market, therefore, of ideological fashions renders aesthetic production incapable “of being either an example to, or a compensation for, the state of the world.”1 Likewise, though more optimistically, Garry Leonard asserts that in Ulysses Joyce “writes the history of consumption for the first time,” framing commodity culture in Bloomsday Dublin as a “form of production that makes one’s identity intelligible” and which offers reparation, Leonard writes, “for an historically specific sense of lack.”2 Enda Duffy and Maurizia Boscagli have suggested in these pages that Ulysses, jewel-like in its “reiteration of details and ornaments,” can be read as an attempt—in the face of an imminent minimalism they associate with the rise of mass production—to “try to drum the recalcitrant commodity . . . into a moment of telling that might at last reveal its other, wilder, uses and effects.”3 This is, obviously, cursory treatment of complicated and important arguments, and the census of critics who have taken up the subject of the commodity in and around Ulysses includes, of course, many other signal contributions.4

Yet, while there is certainly ample cause for critics of Ulysses to focus such scrutiny on the commodity form (this is a novel, [End Page 23] after all, in which a bar of soap proclaims itself part of a “capital couple”), I hope to show in what follows that Ulysses concerns itself foremost with an entirely different set of economic practices.5 Writing, for the most part, out of a Marxist critical tradition invested in production and consumption—to wit, in the commodity—critics of Ulysses have largely ignored the role financial speculation plays in the novel, missing, most importantly, how what Joyce calls its “language of flow” responds to an historical moment in which commodities were becoming abstracted into endless flows of speculative financial data, into prices and quantities disseminated in real time via the stock ticker (Ulysses, 216).

Carey James Mickalites has demonstrated compellingly that speculation was crucial to the evolution of modernist writing, finding in Dubliners’s epiphanic structure, for example, a “tightly controlled narrative economy” that works to arrest “capitalist fantasies of growth through endless circulation.”6 More broadly, Mickalites shows how speculative economic practices are undergirded by what he calls “fantasmatic functions”—invisible hands, specters, self-regulating markets—whose irrationality is exposed by modernist texts which in turn “construct new literary forms around those irrational economic impulses” (Modernism, 3). Yet Mickalites reads Ulysses itself not, as we might expect, as an index to emergent forms of financial speculation, but in relation, once again, to early-twentieth century commodity culture, contending that the novel’s investment in “outmoded ephemera” functions, like Walter Benjamin’s auratic object, to blast apart the “dreamy continuum of capitalist duree,” radically disrupting, thereby, “a historical consciousness reified in its fixation on the new” (93, 117). Extending Mickalites’s attention to the desuetude of the commodity, I hope to show that while commodities may be doomed, for a certain term, to fast in the fires of obsolescence, they give rise to a form of economics, speculation, which abstracts the commodity into its discursive logic, deprivileging in the process the commodity itself as a locus of economic, social, and aesthetic organization. In Ulysses, I argue, Joyce both represents speculative practices, albeit indirectly, and adopts a speculative narrative logic in order ultimately to expose that logic as an illusory discursive practice, a form of rhetoric loosed from its underwriting values, whose effects reverberate, with negative consequences, through nearly every aspect of modern life.

Avoiding both a narrow economic determinism and the undue optimism of aesthetic “redemption,” I want to suggest nonetheless that Ulysses offers...