Three Responses to “Ulysses by Numbers”

Eric Bulson’s “Ulysses by Numbers” (Representations 127) asks the literal question, “Why is James Joyce’s Ulysses as long as it is?” Here we have three responses to his question, his methods, and his conclusions:

JAMES F. ENGLISH | The Resistance to Counting, Recounting

Eric Bulson takes it as given that “quantitative readings of literature . . . get a bad rap.”   Indeed, the presumed hostility of literary scholars toward quantitative analysis provides the necessary friction for his essay, lending argumentative force and methodological point to what might otherwise seem a rather narrowly focused piece. And it is to highlight the wider stakes involved in Bulson’s contrarian decision to count rather than simply read the words of Ulysses that the editors have invited this accompanying cluster of responses and reflections.

I’m in no position to challenge the view of literary studies as a bastion of numerophobia. I wrote a few years ago that a “negative relation to numbers” is “foundational” to literary studies, which occupies a structural position in the university as the quintessential non-counting discipline. But what strikes me now is that neither Bulson nor I, nor anyone else hoping to expand the space for quantitative analysis in literary research, has presented any quantitative evidence to support this picture of literary scholars as the determined enemies of counting. Wouldn’t “quantitative data… actually help us” in this respect, too, enabling us to take the measure of our presumed hyper-commitment to the qualitative, to calculate its degree and scale relative to other disciplines and to other moments in our own history? (Continue reading … )

DAVID KURNICK | Numberiness

“We can indeed count” words, Eric Bulson observes, and concludes that therefore “the counting must go on” (4).  The reasons to move from the first remark to the second will not be self-evident to everyone.  But “Ulysses by Numbers” gives an unprecedentedly intimate sense of Joyce’s compositional practice, offering not just a fascinating picture of how Ulysses grew but also an account of why it grew in the increments it did.  Perhaps the most surprising discovery here for Joyce scholars is the fact that, as Bulson puts it, “even after serialization stopped, Joyce was still writing by the numbers” (26): even released from the 6,000-word increments suggested by Pound for the novel’s serial installments, Joyce kept creating at scales of 6,000.  It turns out that “Circe,” which seems to obey no rules save the volcanic logics of the unconscious and Joyce’s own ambition, is dutifully designed to fit into eight installments of The Little Review.  Figure 9, where you can see this finding visualized, offers a startling picture of genius in compromise with the materiality of publication.

Bulson thus indisputably helps us get a sharper sense of how “the serial logic of length” (6) conditioned this particular masterwork.  Accordingly, my questions about his essay are less about the findings themselves than his account of them, and they concern the charisma that the rhetoric of number itself exerts in the essay.  Surely Bulson’s most provocative claim is that his method will help us get at Ulysses’ “numerical unconscious” (4).  The formulation suggests an opaque but determining structure whose revelation will be decisive for our sense of the meaning of the whole.  And Bulson does tend to connect number with causality in just this way.  “More words on the page but fewer seconds passing in the plot: that is a discovery Joyce made while writing Ulysses” (19).  This can’t really be said to be a discovery, though, since Joyce could have learned that discursive time affects diegetic time from (to pick a name not quite at random) Homer, who interrupts a classic action-movie moment—an arrow whizzing by Menelaos—with a startling simile about Athena deflecting it “the way a mother / would keep a fly from settling on a child / when he is happily asleep”[1]: the words take longer to read (or to hear recited) than an arrow to miss its mark, and even longer if you pause to think about them.  And “more words” is only one way texts slow down story-time: arcane or boring or made-up words can achieve a similar end with relative verbal economy, as can disorienting shifts in point of view, or a lot of jokes, or odd images.  Every attempted reader of Finnegans Wake knows that the number of words on the page has relatively little to do with how long it takes to read that page and how much time it seems is passing in the “plot” as you do so (if I had to quantify, I’d say that word count in the Wake isn’t even the half of it). (Continue reading … )

HOYT LONG and RICHARD JEAN SO | “A Hail of Information”: Ulysses, Topic Modeled

What can a quantitative analysis of style tell us about James Joyce’s Ulysses? Quite a lot, according to Eric Bulson. In his “Ulysses by Numbers,” Bulson uses some of the simplest forms of “stylometrics”—word counts and measures of lexical diversity—to provide new insights into some fundamental questions: why do the novel’s episodes get longer? What’s the relationship between an episode’s length and its plot? Bulson productively correlates the concrete evidence given by word counts with questions of composition and the material constraints of serialization. While the straightforward empiricism of his argument is a strength, it left us to wonder what it misses by treating words as homogenous numerical units abstracted from their semantic contexts. But not because we believe numbers and counting are unsuited to an interpretation of the novel. One of Bulson’s great insights is that counting is hardly alien to the project of reading Ulysses, an insight encapsulated in an epigraph from Hugh Kenner (“‘Words’ are blocks delimited by spaces. So we can count them.”). For us, the question is how to push this counting further. Can we count the words in ways that do not elide their contextual signifying power? Kenner too was interested not just in the number of words on the page, but the likelihood of certain words appearing with others, in what he called “space-time block[s] of words.”[1]

As quantitative approaches to text analysis have evolved, they have similarly shifted from counting words to counting collocations of words, and even collocations of collocations. One popular innovation along these lines is probabilistic topic modeling, which we propose here as a method for exposing what Kenner calls Ulysses’s larger “verbal systems.”[2] What we discover in the process is in part obvious—that topic modeling as a method of counting is also constrained by its assumptions about words as numerical units and their relation to each other. Ulysses troubles these assumptions, which amount to a highly particular theory of information. Precisely because it does so, however, topic modeling the novel also reveals something of how the novel functions as its own form of literary information. If word counts help us understand Joyce as a “mechanical counter,” topic models help us understand him as a careful “arranger” of latent verbal structures.[3] (Continue reading … )

Chronicle of Higher Ed on “Surface Reading”

“The New Modesty in Literary Criticism”


Jeffrey J. Williams’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in identifying a shift toward a new, more empirical, method of literary study, focuses significantly on “surface reading,” the subject of an influential special issue of Representations: “The Way We Read Now” (Fall 2009), edited by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best.

According to Williams, “a good deal of contemporary criticism has performed ‘symptomatic reading,’ a term that conveys looking for the hidden meaning of a text, using, for example, Marxian, Freudian, or deconstructive interpretation…. Surface reading instead focuses on ‘what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts,’ as Best and Marcus put it. Thus the critic is no longer like a detective who doesn’t trust the suspect but more the social scientist who describes the manifest statements of a text.”

Indeed, as Marcus and Best point out in their introduction to “The Way We Read Now,” “The essays [included in the issue] remind us that as much as our objects of study may conceal the structures that give rise to them, they also wear them on their sleeves.”

Find “The Way We Read Now” online, or read pieces by other authors working in this vein (such as Margaret Cohen, Elaine Freedgood, Cannon Schmitt, Eric Bulson, and others) in more recent numbers of Representations, especially the special issue “Denotatively, Technically, Literally” (Winter 2014), edited by Freedgood and Schmitt.

(Dark) Poolside Reading

Accumulating Fictions


by Peter Hitchcock

“The economic turmoil of 2007–2008 is not over: the Great Recession has a long tail that reaches into the present at every level of the economy and is of much interest to those of us attempting to think through its cultural resonance. In the wake of the ‘financial meltdown’ important lessons emerge in the space between literature and the economy. These lessons concern problems of velocity, fiction, and the subject: the complex speed of transactions, the fictiveness of fictitious capital, and the sublation of the subject in contemporary capital accumulation. Dark pools, for instance, the invisible devices at the core of this essay, form a liquidity mechanism meant to achieve efficiencies beyond the excesses that produced the crisis, particularly beyond the effulgence of regulation intended to address them. Just as British Petroleum’s response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has involved even more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, so finance capital is compelled not to surrender its deleterious modes of accumulation but to expand them. Every fact of economic harm becomes a fiction of anticapitalism, and every element of fictitious capital accumulation divulges the real of economic relations: the accumulation of fiction.”

So begins Peter Hitchcock‘s essay examining both the nature of the economic crisis of 2007–2008 and the intensification of finance capital in its wake. Moving between aesthetics and economics, Hitchcock considers, in particular, the emergence of the “dark pool” and its implications within a massive expansion of fictitious capital.

This essay is from Representations‘ current special issue Financialization and the Culture IndustryThe introduction to the issue by C. D. Blanton, Colleen Lye, and Kent Puckett, is available online free of charge.


New Special Issue

Financialization and the Culture Industry

Edited by C. D. Blanton, Colleen Lye, and Kent Puckett


Financialization and the culture industry. The essays that make up this special issue of Representations turn on the relation between those two terms. How, they ask, should we understand the formal and cultural effects of a world economy ever more dependent on finance’s increasingly abstract calculations of value? In one respect, the metaphor of a “culture industry” might now appear anachronistic, swept aside by the postindustrial speed, scale, and global reach of contemporary finance. But what then remains of notions—inherited from the Frankfurt School and elsewhere—of high and low culture, art and reification, commitment and commodity, class struggle and rationalization in an economy now conceived as immaterial or disembodied, frictionless or flat? (Continue reading…)

C. D. Blanton, Colleen Lye, and Kent Puckett
Introduction (free download)
Joshua Clover
Retcon: Value and Temporality in Poetics
Annie McClanahan
Bad Credit: The Character of Credit Scoring
Bishnupriya Ghosh
The Security Aesthetic in Bollywood’s High-Rise Horror
Joseph Jonghyun Jeon
Neoliberal Forms: CGI, Algorithm, and Hegemony in Korea’s IMF Cinema
Michael Szalay
HBO’s Flexible Gold
Peter Hitchcock
Accumulating Fictions

Pan-Optics Symposium at UC Berkeley March 6


Pan-Optics: Perspectives on Visual Privacy & Surveillance

March 6, 2014; Banatao Auditorium, Sutardja Dai Hall, 10:30-4:30

Advances in drone aircraft, networked cameras, and recent disclosures about the NSA’s international and domestic surveillance activities have stimulated public protests, outrage from activists, and new policy discussions among elected leaders. This symposium will highlight emerging perspectives on visual privacy and consider the state of the art from a variety of disciplines and professions, including technology, journalism, filmmaking and the arts.

Among the many presenters and panelists are Rebecca MacKinnon, Senior Research Fellow at the New American Foundation; Trevor Paglen, artist and social scientist; Ken Golberg, Faculty Director of the CITRIS Data & Democracy Initiative; and Kriss Ravetto, Director of the Mellon Research Initiative in Digital Cultures at UC Davis and author of the “Shadowed by Images: Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and the Art of Surveillance” (Representations 111, Summer 2010).

For further information and to register, visit

Infinite Mischief

Must historical novels … be held to a higher truth standard because they are dealing, overtly, with history rather than story, even if that history is as horrific as that of the Holocaust?

Taking off from Thomas Hardy’s pronouncement that the “mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions” amounts to “infinite mischief,” Carol Gluck considers the tension between fact and fiction in her lively opinion piece for Representations 124, “Infinite Mischief? History and Literature Once Again.”

CAROL GLUCK is the George Sansom Professor of History at Columbia University, specializing in the history of modern Japan. She is co-editor with Anna Tsing of Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon (Duke, 2009) and author of Thinking with the Past: Japan and Modern History (University of California, forthcoming).

Twice Written, Never Read

Twice Written, Never Read: Pascal’s Mémorial Between Superstition and Superbia


Why exactly did Blaise Pascal carry with him the testimony of a life-transforming religious experience written in two slightly different versions and hidden in the lining of his coat? By tracing the unease with which this question has been met—or most often, dodged—by 350 years’ worth of readers, this essay (recently published in Representations 124) argues that Pascal’s so-called Mémorial still today presents us with the necessity to rethink the commemorative and transformative function of texts in general.


HALL BJØRNSTAD, Assistant Professor of French at Indiana University, Bloomington, is the author of Créature sans créateur. Pour une anthropologie baroque dans les “Pensées” de Pascal (Québec, 2010; Paris, 2013) and, with Katherine Ibbett, co-editor of a special issue of Yale French Studies, “Walter Benjamin’s Hypothetical French Trauerspiel (2014).




Cure for the Holiday Chestnut

from “Christmas Yet To Come”: Hospitality, Futurity, the Carol, and “The Dead”

by Paul K. Saint-Amour

When Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and James Joyce’s “The Dead” are mentioned together, it tends to be on regional theater websites or on lists of “great holiday tales” rather than in any more sustained context of affiliation. This essay posits a deeper kinship between these beloved stories: they are both, I suggest, serious meditations on the ethics of hospitality. Unlike the Carol, Joyce’s story dwells on hospitality as a legal and political category as well, but it does so largely by inviting the Carol’s face-to-face ethics of hospitality into the political space of occupied Dublin. That colonial setting hosts an encounter among three forms of hospitality: the social codes of invitation and limited welcome; the ethics of limitless welcome to the absolute stranger; and the call within cosmopolitan political philosophy for a universal right of hospitality. “The Dead” thinks about how these hospitalities inform, delimit, and critique one another and asks whether they can still be thought in a political context of forcible occupation. Reprising the Carol’s interest in futurity, it considers, too, what is at stake in representing—or in refusing to represent—the future political form of a present colony. By the lights of such a reading, the Carol and “The Dead” are in fact antidotes to the holiday chestnut, a genre of foregone conclusions and sealed interiors. But we will not want to sever them entirely from the season with which they are so strongly identified. Insofar as it waits for a radical discontinuity in history—for a chance to welcome what has never yet been welcomed—the expectant temporality of Christmas remains central to these stories’ critical energies.

(from Representations 98, Spring 2007)