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‘Becalmed in Short Circuit’: Joyce, Modernism, and the Tram

From: Dublin James Joyce Journal
Number 5, 2012
pp. 33-48 | 10.1353/djj.2012.0002

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In The Mechanic Muse, Hugh Kenner stressed the importance of recognizing the role of rapid technologization in the development of modernist aesthetics, rather than regarding that development as solely, or even primarily, literary: ‘New ways of writing, then, for new orders of experience’.1 Kenner recognized that the aesthetic revolution of modernism must be historicized, if criticism was to comprehend it. In recent years, critics such as Tim Armstrong have sought to question how modernism responds to the reconfiguration of the human body as a machine in scientific discourse and how it interpolates such new understandings of the body and its relations in an increasingly mechanized social world.2 Nicholas Daly’s exploration of the techniques of late nineteenth-century melodrama in depicting train-track rescue scenes as registering ‘the shocks of everyday industrial modernity’ provides another instance of materialist approaches to the relationship between literary-aesthetic developments and the mechanization of everyday life.3 For Daly, popular modernist works served to acclimatize readers to industrial time by making ‘some of the same demands as the industrial task’.4 The plot twists, reversals, and shocks characteristic of melodrama registered the disorientation consequent upon sudden technological change as much as the ‘reverberations of political or social modernity’ to which they have often been attributed.5

Jonathan Crary, too, suggests ‘ways in which the problems of a contingent modernized perception took shape within the larger transformation of Western cultural practices in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’.6 Like Armstrong, he studies the effect of technology on the way we are conditioned to perceive the world around us, an alteration in our relationship to the world that he regards as a defining feature of modernity. While Crary’s reference to ‘Western’ cultural practices implicitly acknowledges that the encounter with modernity and technology is culturally specific, his work is largely limited to the experiences of Britain, France, and America in showing how the shocks of modernity registered at large. The result is that such studies do not tend to acknowledge the effects of technologization in the periphery, and the specific inflections that modernity receives in widely variant cultural, political, and economic circumstances tend to be flattened out into a broad, but nevertheless coherent, developmental narrative. The experience of modernization in the periphery becomes adumbrated by the ‘larger transformations’ that are the subject of analysis. This has a direct impact on the way that modernist writers such as Joyce are received critically, since it does not allow for sensitivity to the ways in which his aesthetic is a response not just to the onset of radical technological change, but to the peculiar ways in which those changes occur in the city that is his subject matter. Daly’s assertion of the importance of ‘industrial modernity’ over against ‘political or social modernity’ must be tempered by recognition of the inseparability of those two categories, most especially in the fraught social and political climate of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Dublin.7

Michael Rubenstein’s recent study of the relationship between Irish literature and the establishment of public utilities in the formative years of the Irish state provides a corrective to this tendency, at least in an Irish context. Asserting that ‘Irish modernism was largely a literary engagement with the problem of how to forge an Irish modernity after colonialism’, he examines how Irish writing tended to uncover the workings of the state apparatus in ‘the unnoticed rituals of everyday life: rituals that are, though we would rarely stop to think of it, underwritten by the provision of public utilities through municipal and state authorities’.8 The tendency of Irish writers to examine the ‘humble, though of course highly technological, capital-intensive, and imminently modern’ realm of the public utility he traces to a lack of access to more obvious elements of the infrastructure of power in a colonial, and postcolonial, political climate.9 He also seeks to connect the formal and linguistic innovations of Irish modernism to this predicament: a ‘culture of incomplete modernization’ thus coincides with zones of uneven economic and political development.

It is in this context that I seek to explore Joyce’s engagement with the electrified tram system, which was an...


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