Everyday Semiotics

Friday, June 15, 2007

Austin, day three

Friday we actually capered around town a bit in the evening, taking the bus over the bridge and working our way to Stubbs BBQ, then looping back through East 6th Street, where all the clubs are at. There's a lot of 'em.

Conference panels Friday began with one in the Ransom Center, where so much Joyce ephemera is stored, with a talk on "Archival Joyce." Finn Fordham, among the other three panelists, took a genetic look at Circe, arguing how the obscenity trial of the Little Riview, which had been publishing Ulysses chapter by chapter, changed how Joyce wrote. In two turns of phrase I especially liked, Fordham pointed to the episode's "ethical pressure-points or fault lines" as the prompts for all the episode's weirdness, and described Joyce as a one-man band, seeming to play the instruments of his text with different parts of his body, creating "an only-just coherent multiplicity."

In the morning plenary, Vicki Mahaffey dug into the mythology of Jim the Penman, the infamous check forger whose nickname is echoed in Shem the Penman, Joyce's obliquely autobiographical character in Finnegans Wake. She titled her talk "A Portrait of the Artist as a Sympathetic Villain: Forgery, Melodrama, and Silent Film" or "Joyce's Hand."

John Bishop more or less ad libbed his afternoon talk, but was, as always, brilliant. The panel's focus was on the senses and sensation, and Bishop rattled off different philosophers' concepts about the human sensorium, from John Locke's primary ideas/sensory impressions to Samuel Johnson's splitting perception and thought to Giambatista Vico's continuum of feeling without perceiving, perceiving and thinking, and reflecting. At one moment Bishop pointedly remarked about how people at conferences so often cite the philosophers everybody else is currently citing instead of the philosophers Joyce would have read. Then on to sensation as it is depicted in Joyce's works, referencing Benstock's catalogue of Leopold Bloom's every sniff and the gnosis/noses punning in Finnegans Wake. Likewise the prominence of water in the Wake, a reflection of how humans are mostly water, and how our experiences are mediated by water, like the film and vitrious fluid of the eyes to the cerebral fluid surrounding the brain. Finally, he said, with so much visual information before us, he see what we choose to see. Stephen, gazing at the ocean, sees a bowl of his mother's vomit and ships with men puking over the railings; Bloom, gazing at a ticket stub left by Boylan, sees a "larcerated scarlet" ticket, the words here connoting blame and shame, as opposed to a plain and neutral "torn red" ticket. In an earlier discussion Bishop pointed out that _Dubliners_ seems not to contain a single insect, where A Portrait and subsequent works are replete with them. This, Bishop suggested, shows a developing realism in Joyce's writing.

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