Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Beware of Imitations: Advertisement as Reflexive Commentary in 'Ulysses.' (Book Written by Irish Author James Joyce)

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Beware of Imitations: Advertisement as Reflexive Commentary in 'Ulysses.' (Book Written by Irish Author James Joyce)

Article excerpt

Standing on O'Connell Bridge in the "Lestrygonians" episode of Ulysses, pondering the mystery of "saltwater fish," which are "not salty," Leopold Bloom glances at the Liffey:

His eyes sought answer from the river and saw a rowboat rock at anchor on the treacly swells lazily its plastered board.

Kino's 11/- Trousers


The most striking thing about the Kino's advertisement, as an "answer," is its opacity. This is not language spoken by one human voice in response to another; the words are just there, buoyant and energetic, a quotation from some mysterious and otherworldly source: Kino's 11/-Trousers. The rowboat serves as a simple metaphor for the peculiar linguistic condition of the phrase, suggesting its quoted, artificial status and its separation from the ordinary give and take of conversation. In the characteristic mode of advertisement, this piece of text is adrift in the natural world, impenetrable and stubbornly detached. Perhaps the boat is also meant to draw our attention to the mobility of the Kino's ad, since it does in fact wander on the treacly swells of Ulysses, reappearing twice in "Circe" as the gnomic sign "K. 11" (15.1658, 2633), which Bloom says is "the parallax of the subsolar ecliptic of Aldebaran" (15.1656), and then again in "Ithaca," as an example of "the modern art of advertisement . . . condensed in trilateral monoideal symbols" (17.581-82).(2)

Artificiality, buoyancy, detachment, mobility - these are all general features of the language of Ulysses. And so, by forcing us to attend to its own unusual character, the Kino's advertisement also functions as a self-conscious critical aside about the condition of language in the novel which contains it. The image is a comic distortion of the Joycean text, which is improbably reduced to a few words and numbers on a plasterboard sign. My argument is that this, in fact, is Joyce's usual practice with the advertisements in Ulysses: In describing advertisements, or permitting Bloom to imagine or rearrange them, Joyce nearly always imitates or parodies some aspect of his own narrative technique. Everyone sees that Bloom's profession as an advertising canvasser gives him a compositional interest without burdening him with an artist's pretensions. What hasn't always been seen is that the advertisements themselves are self-conscious cartoons, in which Joyce formulates his own compositional aesthetic even as he parodies and distorts the form and substance of his work. Taken together, the advertisements provide a sustained reflexive commentary on Ulysses and its language - the comic equivalent of Lily Briscoe's painting in To the Lighthouse.

Most of the recent scholarship on Joyce and advertising - and there has been quite a lot - has attempted to define Joyce's relation to the burgeoning commodity culture of late Victorian and early twentieth-century Europe, arguing either that the ubiquity of commercial messages and consumption conditioned Joyce's artistic practice or that Ulysses itself articulates or exemplifies a highly sophisticated theory of consumption, with advertising at its center. In Advertising Fictions, the most significant and influential work on this topic, Jennifer Wicke has argued that advertising, as a form of literature, provided Ulysses and all of modernism with its distinctive forms and techniques and conditioned its representation of consciousness: "advertising language," she writes, "is responsible for the techniques of high modernism" (123; my italics).(3) More recently, in the introduction to a special issue of James Joyce Quarterly on Joyce and advertising, Garry Leonard has asserted that "advertising - and consumer discourse in general - constitutes a dynamic force every bit as influential on Joyce as, say, the works of Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, or Giordano Bruno" and that Joyce "presents the overall dynamic of advertising in order to demonstrate the extent to which social relations, nationalist aspirations, power structures, class distinctions, gender constructions, and subjectivity itself, all intersect with and even depend upon the simulated universe of advertisements" ("Joyce and Advertising" 574). …

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