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Clever, Very: Richard Barlow

As part of our “Clever, Very” series, we recently interviewed Richard Barlow, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University and author of The Celtic Unconscious: Joyce and Scottish Culture as well as multiple articles about Joyce. Dr. Barlow will be facilitating a new project which seeks to create an online research platform linking the text of Finnegans Wake to existing scholarship.

James Joyce Quarterly: First, can you tell us a little bit about this project?  What is it exactly? What led to the idea? And what do you hope to produce as it unfolds?

Richard Barlow: The project has the catchy title ‘Mapping Finnegans Wake scholarship: Creating an online research platform linking the full text of Finnegans Wake text to existing analysis.’ It is being funded by the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Tier 1 Academic Research Fund and will be based at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The idea is fairly simple: to gather all of the available scholarship on Finnegans Wake and to connect it to a digital text of the book. There is an abundance of excellent work available on Finnegans Wake and I thought it would be great to be able to showcase all of it – or as much of it as possible – on one website. This might encourage more people to read and work with the text. I plan on consulting with attendees of the Finnegans Wake at 80 conference (to be held at Trinity College Dublin in April 2019) to find what Joyceans might want from the project. The project will start in November 2018 and should be completed within four years.

JJQ: Critics have long pointed to Joyce’s writing as a precursor of digital media. Derrida called Ulysses and Finnegans Wake “1,000th generation computers, and Jay David Bolton referred to them as “hypertexts that have been flattened out to fit on the printed page.” Why do you think digital theorists continue to explore Joyce’s work in particular?

Barlow: I think Finnegans Wake is like a weird premonition of the internet or the information age, in that it stores so much interrelated information and that it behaves like a hypertext; its ‘nodal systems’ invite readings that connect disparate points within the text while its references and allusions are similar to the way data is connected online. Computers and the internet – especially sites like fweet.org  – have changed the way we read Finnegans Wake. I think we are less likely to experience the text in a linear way these days and more likely to seek out complex textual systems and patterns.

JJQ: There are already numerous websites, like genius.com, which already seek to provide open access annotations to the full text of the Wake. What problems do you see with sites like this, and how will your platform be different from existing projects?

Barlow: There’s definitely a place for websites like genius.com and it’s great that anyone can share their ideas about the text. However, I’m not sure how much use they are for scholars and academics since there is no vetting system in place. So our platform will be focusing on links to scholarly work.

JJQ: Based on my understanding of your project, you really seem to value linking, citing, and “mapping” secondary criticism. Could you give our readers a brief definition of what it means to “map” criticism, and then explain why you think it is important to create a map of Wake criticism?  

Barlow: I’m interested in seeing what parts of the territory are charted and which parts, if any, remain uncharted. In other words, I’d like to see which parts of the text have been receiving the most attention and which have been overlooked. To stick with charting terminology, the “map” will be a visual representation of the extent to which the different parts of the book have been engaged with critically. This might help us decide what to tackle next.

JJQ: Digital humanists have to strike a balance between making their work accessible to a wide range of people while also ensuring that the content of their platform maintains a certain amount of academic rigor. How do you plan on striking this balance, and do you envision you project being primarily for Joyceans or the public writ-large?

Barlow: I’ll be relying on feedback from my colleagues (including my collaborator Ronan Crowley, Centre for Manuscript Genetics, University of Antwerp) in order to maintain academic standards. Joyceans – as well as Modernists and Irish Studies scholars – will be the target audience for the website. However, if the website could encourage the public to engage with Finnegans Wake – and the critical work – then that would be an added bonus. Ideally, the platform will be fairly user-friendly and non-intimidating.

 JJQ: Shifting gears a little bit, I could not help but notice that you are located in Singapore. Could you tell us something about what it’s like to study and teach in that part of the world, and what you think a broader community of scholars might bring to Joyce studies?

Barlow: We had the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures (IASIL) conference here at NTU in 2017. Judging from that experience, there is certainly an interest in Irish literature in Southeast Asia. I teach a course on Joyce at NTU where we study every episode of Ulysses. I’m very happy that I’ve been allowed to do this over the last few years, and that students have enrolled! Recently I converted this module into to a ‘Technology Enhanced Learning’ course which involved creating videos, online quizzes, and using Google Earth maps of some of the locations of Ulysses. Students from this class have won Undergraduate Awards for their work on Ulysses, and have received their awards in Dublin (fittingly enough). It’s very rewarding to see them produce innovative work on Joyce. In addition to my Joyce course, I’m able to teach modules on Irish literature and Modernism so I’m very fortunate. Even though NTU is a ‘Technological’ university, we are well supported in the School of Humanities. In terms of having a broader community of scholars, I think that having a global research community can attract scholars from non-Western intellectual traditions to Joyce studies. It might also provide locations for possible future conferences or symposia!

JJQ: Finally, where do you see Joyce studies and digital humanities going in the future?

Barlow: I worry that we might start to see a reduction in PhD projects dedicated to Joyce, due to the pressure to produce multi-author PhD theses and scholarly monographs. Digital Humanities approaches can be very useful but I think they should help ‘traditional’ research into the actual themes and features of the texts themselves. In any case, I think the number of Digital Humanities projects is only going to increase as it seems to be where the funding opportunities are.