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Clever, Very: Judith Paltin

Photo courtesy of Catherine Hicks

For our latest installment of “Clever, Very,” we interviewed Dr. Judith Paltin about her article “Music, Intermediality, and Shock in Ulysses.” Dr. Paltin is an assistant professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) and co-chair of UBC’s Faculty of Arts program in Critical Studies in Sexuality.

James Joyce Quarterly: Clearly critics have explored James Joyce’s connections to music for years. What is different about the approach you take in your article?

Judith Paltin: It’s very difficult to see scholarly interest in this subject ever coming to an end. The function music plays in Joyce’s expansion as an artist, its role in creating a realm of revolutionary volatility for the global avant-garde in the twentieth century, its near alliance with literary art, and its complicated relation to twentieth-century experience and politics continually produce a demand to think farther. My article departs from some other approaches, I think, because it is trying to specify certain musicalized relations between Ulysses’ textuality and our concern with human wellness and thriving. By locating a formalization of affect and sense in music and the intermedial (musicalized) text, comparable perhaps to the formalization of subjectivity in fictive character, we can understand more about why the mind so often fails (sometimes deliberately) to construct a rational sign-system or, in other words, a figuration from raw experience.

JJQ: In your article you focus on the non-figural nature of music. Can you expand on what you think makes music particularly significant within Ulysses?

Paltin: I have been absorbed by readings in both music criticism and literary criticism that describe the ways the city and other milieus can be reflected in arranged sound. Following others, I am also drawn to what finds its way from society into historic musical styles and cultures, and from the environment to the music represented on the page. However, what signifies the most to me is what music as a non-figural art offers to verbal representation (or non-representation) and especially in modernist fictional arrangements. While working on this, I had to think quite hard about the mis/alignment between music and word, and how Joyce might have been defining his own art of composition. In the article, I discuss in detail how it is precisely the patterned but non-figural qualities of music which make it attractive as a relief and defense, to “weave the wind” (U 1.662) against pain, shock, or the nightmarish return of history.

JJQ: Why do you think it is important for Joyceans to take account of media studies in general and sound studies specifically?

Paltin: Media studies is larger than Joyce studies, and Joyce studies ranges beyond media studies, but we would understand neither in the ways we do without the other. Modernism’s relationship to technological change, flows of power, bodily augmentation, and artistic anxieties about mechanical reproduction have become non-optional questions in our courses, and Joyce scholarship changes the way media studies talks about information, networks, noise, and agents, among other topics. I think we need sound studies to manage the complexity of Joyce’s ecosystem. In my opinion, no work has yet superseded the totality of the work-play which Joyce performs with musical form, genre, multimedial layering, voice, and “rival modalities,” in Maud Ellmann’s phrase (“Joyce’s Noises,” Modernism/modernity, vol. 16 no. 2, 2009, p. 383). For me, giving attention to media and sound matters prompts new thinking about all kinds of techniques for managing modern living and identarian performances, which I think were also matters of concern to Joyce.

JJQ: What project(s) are you currently working on? How does it connect to your previous work?

Paltin: My research in general pursues queries about queer, minor and collectivist performances at the intersection of social and cultural theory. My current research focuses on the crowds of British and Irish modernism and on modern and contemporary theories of collective identification, radical forms of democracy, and action. I’m close to completing my first monograph, tentatively titled Modernism’s Agile Crowds, which I think of as an intertextual project to critique, anatomize and refigure the 20th-c. urban crowd, its performativity and its politics. Alex Ross has called 20th-c. classical composition “an unassimilated underground” (The Rest Is Noise, NY: Picador, 2007, xvi). To me that speaks both to its status as a subculture and to its self-defining sense of major resistance. Uysses and the 20th-c. musical avant-garde exist in the same modernist ecosystem. They breathe the same air amid crowds experiencing an aestheticized political life. I hadn’t really thought about this before you asked the question, but I see I am trying to think through whether music offers different possibilities for political communication. It seems to me that one of the marks of modern politics is the loss of a mutual language—so that in John Plotz’s work on the 19th c. Chartist crowds, for example, the demonstrators could make the case to the government that they have acted as good citizens and deserve a meaningful social safety net in return. That shared vocabulary around community and citizenship doesn’t live on with much vitality through the rise of fascism, late capitalism, and transnationalism.

JJQ: Where do you see the future of music/sound in relation to modernist studies going?

Paltin: I do see that recent work in sound studies has caught a wave in modernist publishing and at the Modernist Studies Association conference, but sound also counts as one of our perennial objects of study, and has been prominent at Joyce conferences as long as I’ve been attending them. Music for the cultural critic is a true problematic, producing matters of concern around the compass. Last year we gained a new edited collection from Edinburgh UP, Sounding Modernism, which grapples with sound and musicalized rhythm as a cultural force in modernism, and a book by Michelle Witen titled James Joyce and Absolute Music has just been released by Bloomsbury — the coincidence of our interests speaks to these concerns that are “in the air.” Sound studies in general connects so readily to other areas of focus, such as embodiment, cognitive studies, disability studies, markets and consumption, sexuality, gender, and race studies. We won’t run out of research questions, let alone theoretical ones, but I also think our scholarship can become more knowledgeably interdisciplinary—so that it truly speaks to and engages audiences in multiple fields and disciplines. Awareness of the many respects in which the verbal text is musicalized and made intermedial in the twentieth century and, comparatively, at other times has enriched narrative studies, linguistics, cultural theory, and poetics, and I think the bounty can be shared in multiple directions.

This interview was conducted in March 2018 by Alexander W. Barchet via email.