I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Joyce’s Eye

Jenny McDonnell

James Joyce and Cinematicity: Before and After Film, by Keith Williams, Edinburgh University Press, 304 pp, £24.99, ISBN: 978-1399500692
Ulysses 2.2 Episode 1: the wandering i, February/March 2022, Anne Enright with ANU Productions, Landmark Productions and MoLI

Dublin’s cinematic landscape changed significantly between the year in which James Joyce’s Ulysses was set and that in which it was published. On Leopold Bloom’s fictional journey around the city on June 16th, 1904, he passes the Metropole Hotel while en route to the offices of the adjacent Freeman’s Journal. By the time Ulysses was published in 1922, both buildings had been destroyed during the Easter Rising and replaced by cinemas – the Metropole and the La Scala (later the Capitol). Dedicated cinema spaces and technologies had begun to emerge in Ireland almost immediately after the Lumière Brothers’ first film screenings took place in Paris in 1896. Leopold Bloom clearly has some knowledge of early cinematic devices, as evidenced by his passing thoughts about “Mutoscope pictures in Capel Street: for men only”, and Joyce himself gained first-hand experience through his involvement with the Volta Cinema during 1909-1910.

As Keith Williams shows in this volume, in the Dublin of both Bloom and Joyce, early cinema was merely the latest evolution in the history of “moving images across a whole inter-medial ecology of technologies and forms”. In James Joyce and Cinematicity, now in paperback (the first edition came out in 2020), Williams seeks to re-contextualise and re-situate Joyce’s writing within a late-Victorian media-cultural imaginary that was influenced by a set of visual technologies that ultimately came to be remediated by the cinematograph at the turn of the century. These include shadowgraphy and shadow plays, magic lanterns and phantasmagoria, the zoopraxiscope and animal locomotion studies, as well as panoramas and dioramas. Thus, Williams demonstrates the ways in which Joyce’s literary method was “imaginatively primed and nourished through the connective tissue of an already sophisticated moving image and projection culture” that was well established in Dublin long before his relocation to Trieste, Zürich, or Paris.

Modernist prose was frequently characterised by its ambition “before all, to make [the reader] see”, as Joseph Conrad once suggested, but Williams emphasises the extent to which the act of seeing in this era “was no longer regarded as neutral perception, but as a subjective and mobile activity, dependent on the body, on perspective, attention and even artificial manipulation”. For him, Joyce’s work responds to the increasing mediation of vision through various lenses and technologies, projected on a screen, or subject to partial glimpses viewed at speed from a moving train or car. Williams draws on extensive media archaeology to consider how encounters with different modes of pre-cinematic “moving, photographic images” may have led Joyce to develop experimental narrative techniques that incorporated dissolves, montage and a form of “mobile, camera-eyed focalisation”, among other textual devices. Tracing the influence on Joyce of this long tradition of “cinematicity”, in each chapter Williams pairs one visual mode with one of Joyce’s major works – the magic lantern and Dubliners; animal locomotion studies and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; the panorama and Ulysses. The book ends with a brief coda on the presence of cinematic and televisual cultures in Finnegans Wake, proposing an argument that challenges the more established view that Joyce’s final novel was more concerned with radiophony and verbal language than with cinematicity and the visual.

Williams builds on recent critical developments in media archaeology and Irish screen studies to undertake substantial archival research that contextualises Dublin’s (and Ireland’s) media-cultural industry in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, during which time a young James Joyce may have viewed various forms of moving images at bazaars, music halls or the Dublin Rotunda Theatre. Certainly, several of his characters are familiar with these spaces – for example, in the young narrator’s trip to the titular bazaar in “Araby”, and in Stephen Dedalus’s account of a visit to a diorama in the Rotunda in Portrait of the Artist. Williams also detects some compelling echoes between Joyce’s fiction and specific textual examples drawn from contemporary lantern shows and related traditions. These include characters’ observations of shadowy figures and silhouettes on window-blinds (as in the opening story in Dubliners, “The Sisters”); a recurring motif in Portrait that positions Stephen Dedalus as a passive spectator of his own life, located in “dark, enclosed spaces with firelight or ‘lamp with a reflector’ as the sole illumination source, creating projections that ‘flickered on the wall’”; and the famous closing montage of “The Dead”, moving westward over Ireland as snow falls “in a rapid succession of images not unlike a wintry lantern slide or film tour of the country’s geographical highlights”, such as The Lakes of Killarney and Glengariff, via Cork and Bantry, a lantern lecture show that dates from 1894.

In his persuasive analysis of the panorama and the “Wandering Rocks” episode of Ulysses, Williams identifies a subversion of the imperialist gaze associated with both tourist slide shows and travel-panoramas. These forms of “virtual voyaging” often consisted of romanticised or exoticised images of the colonies for consumption by national and international audiences, or they foregrounded spectacles of imperial might and power, such as military and royal parades. In its expansive view of Dubliners’ lives as the Lord Lieutenant’s viceregal cavalcade crosses the city, “Wandering Rocks” serves to subvert this imperial visual politics by refusing to maintain a static, elevated narrative. Instead, it presents a mobilised gaze that is more focused on local individualised views at street level by zooming in on individual experiences and perspectives and cross-cutting to others, “switching interactively between external perception and internalised, involuntary memory and creating a kind of Modernist psychogeography”.

Williams explores how “Wandering Rocks” anticipates the Big City Symphony experimental films of the 1920s (for example, Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis [1927] and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera [1929]). Crucially, he also emphasises the ways in which Joyce’s work continues a tradition that was introduced in early “actualities” by the Mitchell & Kenyon film company and by Félicien Trewey (a representative of the Lumière Brothers) in the 1890s and early 1900s, both of whom produced documentary footage of Dublin that emphasised its modernity and turned inhabitants of the city into consumers and objects of the camera’s gaze. This is exemplary of Williams’s core argument throughout James Joyce and Cinematicity insofar as it emphasises the need for a “Janus-faced” exploration of the ways in which Joyce’s modernism was influenced by the technologies that emerged both before and after film in Ireland and elsewhere. Read in this way, Joyce’s work proves to have been shaped by a long tradition of media-cultural visual displays that in turn allowed it to anticipate the film-making methods of Sergei Eisenstein and others.

The process of remediation that characterised film’s absorption of techniques and devices from lantern shows and panoramas has continued with the development of subsequent media technologies in the century since Ulysses was published. Indeed, Williams further notes that, from a twenty-first century perspective, film itself may seem like “an ‘intermediate technology’ that is being superseded, rather than being cinematicity’s ultimate form”. The ongoing year-long Ulysses 2.2 project does not limit itself to moving images in its reimagining of Joyce’s novel, but I would nevertheless suggest that it extends the process of remediating the immersive and multi-sensory effects of his cinematicity. A collaboration between ANU Productions, Landmark Productions, and MoLi, Ulysses 2.2 is a set of site-specific, online and multidisciplinary performances, exhibitions and installations that re-view the eighteen episodes of Ulysses in innovative ways. The initiative’s opening episode was “the wandering i” (February-March 2022), an audio-visual installation curated by Anne Enright. It took place in the James Joyce Classroom on the top floor of MoLI (formerly Newman House on St Stephen’s Green), which recreates or preserves a classroom similar in style to the kind that Joyce would have attended as an undergraduate. In this, the piece functioned as both a site-specific and a sight-specific piece, that encouraged participants to become aware of their own embodied experience of the act of looking and meaning-making as they encountered Joyce’s work via digital technologies.

Upon entering the building, participants were directed to ascend the stairs and follow a series of signs (featuring quotations from Ulysses) that ultimately led them to the classroom. In the room, they were invited to sit in front of a screen on which an introductory video played, narrated by Enright. They were then asked to read an extract from Ulysses on-screen, while tracking software traced the movement of their eyes, after which their reading was played back to them in the form of an individual “gaze map”. This revealed how and where their eyes had scanned the material, skipping over words and lines, pausing or lingering on individual words and sentences, while a corresponding soundscape sped up or slowed down according to how and where the eyes had moved across the page. Exiting back down the stairs, participants were implicitly invited to read the guiding signs and quotations anew and in a different order, having been presented with a playful encouragement to embrace reading as a “dance of difficulty, interest and delight” in which our eyes “skip across sentences and our brains fill in the blanks”, as the Programme Notes put it. The installation invited the eye to wander but also encouraged the self to wander too, as participants were encouraged to reconsider their perspective on the world and the ways in which they make (partial) meaning out of the words, images and objects that they see.

In this, “the wandering i” echoes Stephen Dedalus’s musings in the “Proteus” episode of Ulysses about “the ineluctable modality of the visible”, a principle that Williams sees as informing Joyce’s project as a whole “to represent consciousness itself through both what and how his protagonists see”. Taken together, these separate considerations of Joyce both demonstrate the centrality of the technical-visual dimension to what made his work, and to what might be made of his work one century on.


Jenny McDonnell lectures in English Literature and Critical Theory at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT) in Dún Laoghaire.

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