The Literature of Information Overload: Modernism and the Encyclopedia
Phelan, James Blackwell
The Literature of Information Overload considers modernist literature’s complicated involvement in the history of the encyclopedia—that is, in the history of formal solutions to the problem of information overload that runs, roughly, from Pliny to Wikipedia. Over four chapters, it develops two lines of argument. The first and second chapters, which center on James Joyce’s Ulysses and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, respectively, argue that modernist writers rework the encyclopedic tradition’s formal innovations in order to construct expansive, variously traversable networks of text, intertext, and paratext capable of comprehending a world that literature otherwise can no longer represent as a totality. Modernist renovations of the encyclopedia encourage reading practices that both parallel the tactics needed to navigate the modern metropolis and anticipate the ways that we read, think, and distribute attention in today’s hypersaturated information culture. The dissertation’s third and fourth chapters, centered on William Carlos Williams’s Paterson and on Marianne Moore’s “Marriage,” argue that other modernist writers respond critically to encyclopedic modernism by making subversive use of its formal repertoire. For these writers, encyclopedism monumentalizes dubious tendencies in modernism and modernity: excessive investment in the authority of the archive, overconfidence in the efficacy of language, a turn from the material to the purely textual, and dependence on cultural resources and institutions that reinforce hegemony. Some break encyclopedic form, others repurpose it to devise alternatives. At issue both for modernism’s encyclopedists and those modernists who engage with encyclopedic tradition while diverging from it is a question that has only become more urgent in the years since Joyce, Benjamin, Williams, and Moore were writing: how best to manage immense quantities and overwhelming flows of information when they seem to threaten the coping strategies of literary form?