And these threads are continually being interwoven – revealing relationships and disclosing an intricately intersecting structure of motives and desires – as the protagonists encounter and re-encounter one another.
This fabric of simultaneous, cross-connected subjectivities is constructed mostly through walking, taking the tramcars, and finding face-to-face encounters in the varied public spaces and private chambers of the city.2 Letters and telegrams arrive, and there is an occasional word to the telephone, but Bloomsday unfurls at the very dawn of the wireless era; there is no FM104 drive-time radio, and there are no cellphones. Contiguity enables connection, distance means disconnection. When Leopold Bloom departs for Dlugacz’s to purchase a kidney for breakfast, he leaves Molly – crucially – with her uninterrupted private thoughts. If he had called her from the pork butchers – maybe asking her to take off the kettle he had left boiling and scald the teapot – it might all have turned out differently.
At one point, however, Bloom does allow himself to speculate about ‘a private wireless telegraph which would transmit by dot and dash system the result of a national equine handicap (flat or steeplechase) of 1 or more miles and furlongs won by an outsider at odds of 50 to 1 at 3 hr. 8 m. p.m. at Ascot (Greenwich time) the message being received and available for betting purposes in Dublin at 2.59 p.m. (Dunsink time).’3 A century later, this embryonic possibility has puffed up into a pervasive post-Joycean reality, and, as Dubliners now gab endlessly into their private wireless telephones, they construct their interlocking narratives in a voice that Bloom would hardly have heard – the electronic present continuous.
Electronic Present Continuous
This characteristic voice of our time has gradually emerged as telecommunications systems have grown in capabilities and coverage. Telegraph and wireless telegraph operators employed it as they tapped out SOS messages describing perilous predicaments. In Australia, from 1888 onwards, the telegraph lines were cleared for the annual running of the Melbourne Cup, so that news of the winner could be flashed around the continent in near real time. (Consequently, the whole country still comes to a halt while the race – now broadcast on radio and television – is run.) And, at the opening of the first Australian federal parliament, in May 1901, the telegraph was used to create a nationwide ‘imagined community.’4
The telephone, by its very live-spoken, circuit-switched nature, provided a natural medium for the electronic present continuous. And it was soon followed by live radio broadcasts of performances, sporting events, and breaking news. By the 1930s, in Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce could imagine a radio – a ‘tolvtubular daildialler, as modern as tomorrow afternoon and in appearance up to the minute, . . . with a vitaltone speaker’ sucking a whole, complex, unfolding world into H. C. Earwicker’s ear. It was, we are informed, ‘capable of capturing skybuddies, harbour craft emittences, key clickings, vaticum cleaners, due to woman formed mobile or man made static and bawling the whole hamshack and wobble down an eliminium sounds pound so as to serve him up a melegoturny marygoraumd, eclectrically filtered for allirish earths and ohmes . . .’ HCE; Here Comes Everybody, yes, and Here Comes Electronics too.
As the British Empire slowly expired, the red-coloured areas of the map preserved a tenuous sense of community through live, shortwave broadcasts of international cricket matches – cutting across time zones, and keeping listeners awake at odd hours of the night. In the Soviet Union, wired broadcasts – first to public loudspeakers in the Stalin era, then to private Radio Mayak and Radio Rossiya boxes in the Brezhnev era – provided the government with a direct line to the people, plus a way to keep their attention by broadcasting concerts and hockey games.5 Across fewer time zones, national baseball, football, basketball, and hockey leagues and broadcasts performed a similar unifying function in the United States. Baseball’s most famous moment was given much of its enduring resonance by Russ Hodges’s widely broadcast play-by-play – the electronic present continuous pegging the needle of rhetorical hyperintensity:
Hartung down the line at third, not taking any chances, Lockman without too big a lead at second – but he’ll be running like the wind if Thomson hits one. Branca throws . . . There’s a long drive! It’s going to be, I believe . . .! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left field stands! The Giants win the pennant! And they’re going crazy! They’re going crazy! Oh, ho!’6
By eight o’clock in the evening, on Sunday October the thirtieth, 1938, when Orson Welles began presenting The War of the Worlds over the Columbia Broadcasting System, the nuances of the electronic present continuous were long familiar. Listeners knew how to interpret them – and that provided an unprecedented dramatic opportunity. Of course it was just a scary radio play about an unexpected alien attack from the skies, with the characters breaking in to ‘regular programming’ to provide ‘live eyewitness’ accounts of fiery destruction in New Jersey and New York. The actors addressed the audience directly, describing events supposedly unfolding before their very eyes:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed . . . Wait a minute! Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . .
But, as The New York Times reported (in the past tense) next morning:
Despite the fantastic nature of the reported ‘occurrences’, the program, coming after the recent war scare in Europe and a period in which the radio frequently had interrupted regularly scheduled programs to report developments in the Czechoslovak situation, caused fright and panic throughout the area of the broadcast.
Telephone lines were tied up with calls from listeners or persons who had heard of the broadcasts. Many sought first to verify the reports. But large numbers, obviously in a state of terror, asked how they could follow the broadcast’s advice and flee the city, whether they would be safer in the ‘gas raid’ in the cellar or on the roof, how they could safeguard their children, and many of the questions which had been worrying residents of London and Paris during the tense days before the Munich agreement.7
It did not matter that the events being described were imaginary – and, indeed, wildly implausible. There was no simple way to know that the ‘explosions’ were special effects. If you were too far away to be a potential eyewitness yourself (it was clever of Welles to set ground zero on an isolated farm in New Jersey), and too uneducated to catch the scientific howlers (Welles deployed a ‘great astronomer’ and other scientific authority figures to deflect critical scrutiny of the details), it was impossible to distinguish fact from falsehood. Electronic signals had demonstrated that they could construct the most outlandish of beliefs, and provoke people to act instantly on those beliefs.
It was the power of the electronic present continuous voice – the presumed direct connection to simultaneously unfolding, distant events – that had caused the trouble. The damage had been done long before Welles got to his final (retrospective voice) disclaimer:
This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than the holiday offering it was intended to be – the Mercury Theater’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!’ Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night – so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. . .
Today, live eyewitness accounts can be transmitted not just by expensively equipped broadcasters, but also by anyone with a cellphone or instant messaging system. Husbands can describe to their wives the choices they see before them on the supermarket shelves, teenagers can tell their friends where they are and who is hanging out with them, street demonstrators can point out the current positions of the police to their comrades, and celebrity spotters can track the movement of George Clooney through the produce section at Balducci’s. When the hijacked jetliners hit the World Trade Center towers, around nine o’clock in the morning on Tuesday September the eleventh, 2001, the unfolding events were narrated in thousands of phone calls and instant messages; it was a desperately improvised, scaled-up replay of War of the Worlds – but with nobody to step reassuringly out of character at the end.
In cities today, electronically propagated narratives flow constantly, and increasingly densely. These narratives – superimposed, as they are, on real space in real time – act as feedback loops recursively transforming the very situations that produce them. And, like all narratives, they are of ambiguous reliability – constructed from facts, fictions, and falsehoods in whatever sorts of mixes and combinations their authors care to contrive. On Hugh Kenner’s well-known reading, Ulysses is the voice of a cybernetic mechanism – ‘a huge and intricate machine, clanking and whirring for eighteen hours’;8 now narrative has rebounded from the pages where novelists had consigned it, and has itself become the city’s cybernetic machinery.
In the late 1920s (not long before the publication of Ulysses), Dziga Vertov, in Man with the Movie Camera constructed a closely comparable, day-long urban portrait – this time of a Soviet city.9 Like the novel, the film begins with the protagonists awakening in the morning, and carries the narrative through the day’s activities to the late evening, intercutting multiple strands of action as it goes. It self-consciously introduces, on-camera, the camera itself, the cameraman, the film, the projector, the projectionist, the theatre, the audience, the orchestra, and the flickering screen. And, every now and again, it tweaks us into sudden awareness of the paradoxical nature of its enterprise – for example, by pulling back to reveal that what we took to be a direct view of the city is actually a filmed view, being projected at a later moment before the theatre audience.
Vertov’s ribbon of spliced celluloid also foregrounds the central, inescapable contradiction of all recorded narrative – the bafflement that, for example, animates Tristram Shandy, in which Tristram’s Uncle Toby starts an autobiography that is slower-paced than the events it describes and falls more and more hopelessly behind as life inexorably goes on. You simply cannot synch recorded narratives with the events they describe. That’s what you need tense for. You can set your narrative in the past, so that it continuously recedes into the distance. You can set it at some point in the future, and describe what will be, so that real time eventually catches up with your predictions and passes them by. Or you can try the eyewitness present continuous voice – but you had better be quicker than Uncle Toby. In any case, the spans of time occupied by the actual events unfolding, the writer writing about them, and the reader reading, will generally be different.
But link a video camera to the Web, and these distinctions collapse; Uncle Toby’s paradox suddenly dissolves. You now get Ulysses II, unfolding second by second, in real time. Today, you can surf into the Website of the Irish Times, from anywhere in the world, at any time, to get live Webcam views of the O’Connell Bridge and the Liffey. Or you can click to the Dublin Corporation’s numerous traffic cameras for views of the streets – now car-choked – that Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and Buck Mulligan strode. And I’m not even counting the private surveillance cameras scattered discreetly around Temple Bar.
It’s not just Dublin, of course. A century after Buck Mulligan roused himself to peer down the stairs, the multiple narrative perspectives of the characters in Ulysses have become endlessly proliferating, live video feeds from the world’s cities. In the emerging Webcam era, the city’s cybernetic loops are not only audio and text narratives, but video streams as well. As cities electronically reflect back on themselves, telling is now joined by showing.
Like Joyce in far-off Trieste, distant Web surfers can construct minutely detailed accounts of the day’s doings in places that may interest them – not by a novelist’s occupation of the minds of his characters, nor by a film-maker’s shooting and editing, but by following hyperlinks to switch among available video viewpoints. And as to the mode of consciousness induced by this strategy, it is precisely that detected by Hugh Kenner in Ulysses – the mode of a ‘sardonic, impersonal recorder, that constantly glints its photoelectric eyes from behind the chronicle of Bloomsday.’10
Joyce disclosed Dublin by mobilizing his characters, and film or video makers do so by mobilizing their cameras. Thus the agility of the available cameras matters. Indeed, much of the now-standard language of film derives directly from the bulk and clumsiness of early movie cameras.
Vertov’s camera, as the film itself reveals, was a large, hand-cranked box on a tripod. Consequently, many of his shots are framed statically, there are a few pans, and an occasional, daring take from the back of a moving truck. Man with the Movie Camera’s sense of frantic movement through the city is mostly achieved through skilful construction of fast-paced montages.
Hollywood has long attempted to overcome the limitations of the camera, and to achieve greater fluidity, by introducing sophisticated motion machinery. For example, the famous extended tracking shot through a Mexican border town, at the beginning of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, was a tour-de-force of the mechanized camera crane. And, more recently, robotically controlled cameras have been increasingly used for precisely choreographed special effects work.
The miniaturization of film and video technology has also loosened things up. In particular, the development of light, handheld film and video cameras has enabled a first-person, body-based style; the camera operator’s mobile eye seems to become the viewer’s eye, and the voice-over commentary seems a whisper in the viewer’s ear. This is characteristic of home videos, and it has been common in documentaries. It has also been used to great effect in a few theatrical films, such as The Blair Witch Project. It was a short technological step from this to the wearable, head-mounted video camera – a possibility I first saw instantiated, in the early 1990s, when a talented Media Lab student named Steve Mann walked into my MIT office with video rolling.11
If you have enough wireless bandwidth, you can connect a handheld or head-mounted video camera to a transmitter. You can (as Mann did) transmit sequences of images to a Web site for later viewing. Or, as the rollout of G3 cellphone technology demonstrated in 2001, you can transmit live video through a wireless telephone. Thus the ‘cinema-eye’ and the ‘radio-ear’ – technologies that Vertov had seen as alternative ways of reaching the masses – are combined and mobilized.
The ultimate in camera miniaturization and mobilization is the ‘virtual camera’ of three-dimensional computer graphics, which shrinks to a weightless point. The effect of this was vividly evident in the early Disney computer animation Tron, in which the ‘camera’ performs high-speed gymnastics that would be unthinkable with a physical device. Now, such effects are commonplace in video games, and in the exploration of online ‘virtual cities’, such as Virtual Helsinki. If model-based video eventually replaces today’s image-based systems, as some researchers expect, the dimensionless, infinitely mobile camera will become the norm; instead of watching a sporting event through the medium of a few physical cameras and the shots selected by a director, a viewer might ‘fly’ at will through a live three-dimensional model of the stadium.
Through miniaturization and mobilization of video cameras, wireless connection, and model-based video, the stiff, distant images provided by fixed Webcams will soon be supplanted by fluid, eyewitness perspectives. Electronic views of the city will seem less like digital Lorenzettis and Canalettos, and more like retinal traces from Stephen Dedalus in motion.
In speech, the shift of reference from present to past events is signalled by tense; ‘I am walking down Grafton Street’ becomes ‘I was walking down Grafton Street.’ But video doesn’t have participles. So, there is no perceptible difference in the image when a delay is introduced into the transmission of a video signal; the instant replay of a football play looks exactly the same as the live transmission you saw a moment ago. There is simply an unmarked tense drift.
When the hijacked airliners hit the World Trade towers on September 11, 2001, the moment was captured on video. For hours afterwards, in a kind of pornography of explosive violence, the clips were replayed over and over again. On screen, it was hard to tell the difference between the identical towers, and tense drift added another layer of nightmarish ambiguity. As growing numbers of people, around the world, tuned in to these images on their television and computer screens, it often wasn’t clear to them whether they were watching events in real time or replays. As the broadcasts cut back and forth between live and recorded images of the same unfolding scene, this tragedy drifted away from the classical unities.
Today, a fundamentally new urban condition is emerging – one that was anticipated by Joyce’s repeated, sardonic reference to Dublin as Doublin’, a city marinated in narrative, and inescapably bound up with narrative’s capacity both for reflection and for duplicity. Multiplying thousands of electronic eyes and ears continuously capture the city’s unfolding, interwoven narrative threads, and spin them out into cyberspace. Some of these threads are ephemeral, and disappear instantly. Others sit on voicemail, e-mail, and other servers for a while, then are deleted or automatically fade away. Yet others accumulate permanently, to form an expanding, long-term electronic memory trace. And continuously, the narratives – drifting in tense and dislocated spatially – leak back out again into the city through proliferating earpieces, eyepieces, speakers and screens. In countless spatially and temporally displaced, inherently ambiguous fragments, Dublin electronically doubles itself.
1. These sites are defined by their inhabitants and attractions, and incidentally (as all Joyceans know) map onto the settings of Homer’s Odyssey. The action unfolds successively through the tower, school, strand, house, bath, graveyard, newspaper office, restaurant, library, streets, concert room, tavern, rocks, hospital, brothel, shelter, house, and bed. There have been numerous explications of the mapping of these settings onto actual Dublin sites; see, for example, Cyril Pearl, Dublin in Bloomtime: The City James Joyce Knew, New York, Viking, 1969, Robert Nicholson, The Ulysses Guide: Tours Through Joyce’s Dublin, London/New York 1989 and Rosanna Negrotti, Joyce’s Dublin: An Illustrated Commentary, London, Caxton Editions, 2000.
2. ‘What facilities of transit were desirable?’ Bloom asked himself. The reply:
When citybound frequent connection by train or tram from their respective intermediate station or terminal. When countrybound velocipedes, a chainless freewheel roadster cycle with side basketcar attached, or draught conveyance, a donkey with wicker trap or smart phaeton with good working solidungular cob (roan gelding, 14h).
Ulysses, New York, Everyman’s Library edition, 1997, pp. 969-970.
3. Ibid., p. 974.
4. Kevin Livingston, ‘Communications’, in Graeme Davison, John Hirst, and Stuart Macintyre (eds.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 143. See also Kevin Livingston, The Wired Nation Continent: The Communication Revolution and Federating Australia, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1997, for an account of ‘technological nationalism’ in Australia.
5. Michael Wines, ‘Wired Radio Offers Fraying Link to Russian Past’, The New York Times, Thursday, October 18, 2001, p. A4.
6. Russ Hodges, Giants play-by-play broadcaster, New York, October 3, 1951.
7. ‘Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact’, The New York Times, Monday, October 31, 1938, p. 1. Subsequent commentators have pointed out that the newspapers, conscious of competition from the new medium of radio, probably exaggerated the panic a bit to discredit the rival medium. Welles himself remarked that he had hesitated about presenting it, because ‘it was our thought that perhaps people might be bored or annoyed at hearing a tale so improbable’.
8. Hugh Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce (Morningside Edition), New York, Columbia University Press, 1987, pp. 165-68.
9. The film is actually a composite of Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and elsewhere.
10. Ibid., pp. 167-68.
11. Steve Mann, ‘Wearable Computing: A First Step Toward Personal Imaging’, IEEE Computer, vol. 30, no. 2 (February 1997), pp. xxx, and Steve Mann, Intelligent Image Processing, New York, Wiley, 2001.