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Digital tools help uncover memes in literature

Tom Murphy

Irish author James Joyce surely wasn’t surfing the Web when he wrote the noto ri ously dense novel Finnegans Wake, pub lished in 1939. But much of the book’s struc ture is intrigu ingly com pa rable to the memes that drive today’s online cul ture, according to senior Eng lish major Tom Murphy.

Murphy points out that the novel’s sprawling cast of char ac ters takes after the con stantly evolving stream of photos and text that pop u late users’ Face book walls and Twitter feeds today. But com paring Joyce’s novel to the seem ingly self-​​replicating meme culture—and specif i cally how ideas within it evolve and spread—can pro vide a macro-​​level look at a work that’s con founded readers and scholars alike for more than 70 years.

“You’re talking about a book that’s 800 or 900 pages long,” Murphy said. “It’s dif fi cult to trudge through. The novel incor po rates many dif ferent lan guages, and almost half of it is written in puns. To look at my idea—that the char ac ters in Finnegans Wake existed very much like the way memes do today—in a tra di tional way would be a much harder task. But looking at it from this macro level, in an aggre gate sense, makes looking at the book as a whole a much easier task.”

Murphy started taking this wide-​​lens approach to Finnegans Wake last fall when he took “Tech nolo gies of Text,” a dig ital human i ties course taught by Ryan Cordell, an assis tant pro fessor of Eng lish. Cordell’s research has explored how sto ries and ideas went viral in the days long before the Internet, spreading across great dis tances through news pa pers and peri od i cals rather than a series of online networks.

“I started tracking the char ac ters in Finnegans Wake, and they reminded me more like memes than of the kind of char ac ters you’d see in any other book,” said Murphy, who used dig ital tools intro duced to him in the dig ital human i ties class to ana lyze the text and con firm whether his obser va tion proved accurate.

Murphy’s research shows that memes may not nec es sarily be unique to the Internet but instead rep re sent a deeper way people tell and struc ture sto ries, relying on repeated imagery and text that evolves to meet the needs of new uses. Just as an online joke may change to meet the latest news item or pop cul ture hap pening, the appear ances of Joyce’s char ac ters evolve throughout Finnegans Wake to meet the novel’s sto ry telling needs.

The cast of char ac ters in Finnegans Wake tends to behave in unusual ways, Murphy noted, with some fre quently appearing in the com pany of others or in very spe cific con texts. Their appear ance itself served as an oppor tu nity for Joyce to com ment upon plot or char ac ters in a way beyond the tra di tional means of storytelling.

Murphy’s project relied in part on pre vious schol arly work that charts the cir cum stances and inter ac tions of Joyce’s char ac ters. But using new dig ital tools allowed the North eastern stu dent to inves ti gate those con nec tions more closely. For instance, Murphy uti lized a pro gram called Voyant for “dis tant reading,” a prac tice that looks at char acter appear ances and inter ac tions in any number of cir cum stances or com bi na tions. He explained that dis tant reading inher ently focuses more on struc ture than inter pre ta tion, an ideal tool for looking at the basic mechanics of a book like Finnegans Wake.

Murphy added that these pow erful pro grams can do much more than gather data on one single book; they can allow scholars to look at vast topics like race or social mobility within a cer tain time period and rapidly con duct analyses that might oth er wise take a life time of reading and research.

Upon com pleting the “Tech nolo gies in Text” course, Cordell encour aged Murphy to press fur ther with his work. That led Murphy to present his research, “Memes, Dis tant Reading, and Finnegans Wake,” ear lier this month at Re:Humanities, an under grad uate sym po sium exploring new media spon sored and orga nized by stu dents at Swarth more, Haver ford, and Bryn Mawr colleges.

“I had never used these dig ital human i ties tools before this fall, and they’ve com pletely changed the direc tion of what I’m able to accom plish in this field,” Murphy said. “It opens up new ways of looking at text that I never even thought was possible.”

– by Matt Collette

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