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Clever, Very: Michelle Witen

Michelle Witen will be co-leading this Summer’s Zurich James Joyce Foundation’s Annual Workshop on the theme, Joycean Animals.  She is a Postdoctoral Research and Teaching Fellow at the University of Basel’s Department of English Linguistics and Literature, and she has just released her first monograph James Joyce and Absolute Music (Bloomsbury 2018), which came out of her doctoral research at the University of Oxford. This is her second time co-organizing the ZJJF Annual Workshop with its director Fritz Senn, the last one being on Musicillogical Joyce (2009).

James Joyce Quarterly: Can you tell us a little bit about how you arrived at this topic for the workshop?

Michelle Witen: In many ways, it was coincidental. Last spring, I was visiting Fritz at the Zurich Joyce Foundation and mentioned I was putting together a panel for the Toronto Joyce Symposium on “Our Funnaminal World.” He was intrigued and thought it would make a great topic for the annual Zurich workshop, so we decided to make it happen. When selecting topics for the workshop, we try to choose a concept that is wide enough in scope that it spans the range of Joyce’s writings, but can also zero in on the minutia. In this sense, Joyce and Animals is perfect.

JJQ: What exactly do you mean by the phrase “animal studies” and how does it intersect with our critical questions and fields such as ecocriticism, post-colonial theory, gender theory, and/or post-humanism?

Witen: Animal studies is everywhere. Focusing on the literary context, when we conceive of animals in fiction, we’re surrounded: from expression, to adjective, to rhetorical device, to dichotomy, to parable, to environment, and the list could go on. For the workshop, we have omitted the phrase “animal studies” from the CFP, but of course it is implied in the topic, and I certainly hope to hear presentations that intersect with ecocritical, non-human, Marxist, gendered, queer, technological, postcolonial, post-human, psychoanalytical, and deconstructive discourses.

JJQ: Many of our readers are probably familiar with some of Joyce’s depictions of animals, such as the Blooms’ cat or the citizen’s dog Garryowen. Beyond just exploring these explicit representations of animals, how can animal studies help us better understand Joyce’s work?

Witen: Applying a relatvely unexplored lens to Joyce’s work is always productive, and reveals unexpected facets of the cultural, political, economic, ecological, agricultural, biological, musical, literary, and historical climate in which Joyce was immersed. Although dogs and cats come most readily to mind when thinking about Joyce’s animals – and I expect a whole day of the workshop will go towards Garryowen, Tatters, and their permutations —our workshop will naturally include all creatures great, small, and microscopic, as well as concepts relating to animality, bestiality, and the beastly.

JJQ: Can you say something more about the workshop itself? How do people apply? What’s the workshop experience like? And what kind of work emerges from its activities

Witen: The workshop is an annual fixture of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation, so it has a set format. Essentially, this is an intensive week that emphasizes discussion, dialogue, and discovery. Participants attend every session and the presentations build upon one another, with more points of intersection emerging in the 20-minute exchange following each 30-minute presentation. As such, the workshop experience is really rewarding because it places disparate aspects of animality in direct and immediate conversation with each other. Katherine Ebury, one of the workshop participants, and I plan to submit a proposal to the JJQ for a special issue on “Joyce and the Nonhuman,” so this will be a more concrete product of the workshop. Although the workshop is full, those still interested in attending can feel free to email Fritz Senn (fritzsenn@mac.com) and myself (michelle.witen@unibas.ch), as we do have a waiting list.

JJQ: Where do you see the future of Joyce studies going?

Witen: That’s a difficult question and one that I will try not to answer pithily. Job-market aside (that’s a different question altogether), junior academics and postgraduates are actively discouraged from writing single-author monographs and dissertations, and yet the academic books that influence us the most are those that deal concentratedly on a single author, such as Joyce, whose work profits from extended study. More and more academic and trade presses seem to agree, if the continued publication of “Joyce and —” monographs can form a basis of judgment. Furthermore, as prophesied, Joyce has kept professors and students busy for centuries with his enigmas and puzzles: considering the continued strength of the Joyce industry, I do not see this changing, especially as Joyce’s works still yield fruit from close reading, while also prospering from every critical and theoretical trend. So, my hope is that Joyce studies will remain a beacon through uncertain times.