James Joyce and Cinematicity: Before and After Film by Keith Williams (review)

Press/Media: Research


Despite its title, Keith Williams’s James Joyce and Cinematicity is not just another “Joyce and film” book. Williams exhaustively explores the archives in order to provide the most comprehensive and definitive study to date of how the pre- and proto-cinematic visual culture of the Victorian and Edwardian eras informed and influenced the development of Joyce’s modernist methods. “By placing Joyce’s writing back into the context of nineteenth-century moving image media,” Williams has “provided an explanation for the paradox that his cinematicity seemed ahead of screen practice itself in the views of directors and theorists. . . . address[ing] the deficit in scholarship before the cinematograph on Joyce’s cinematic Modernism” (256).

Drawing on recent work in inter-medial studies like Cinematicity in Media History, edited by Jeffrey Geiger and Karin Littau (to which Williams himself contributed a chapter),1 and reaching back to some older standards in visual and media theory, such as the influential work of Jonathan Crary and Walter Benjamin,2 Williams engages in an impressive project of cultural archeology. Put simply, cinematicity [End Page 209] refers to the practice of relocating the development of cinematic vision and visual practices into a larger and longer inter-medial landscape that includes but is not limited to the advent of cinema, thus providing a broader perspective of visual media and practices in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Paraphrasing Geiger and Littau, Williams defines cinematicity “not as a property exclusively inherent to the apparatuses and institution which became cinema in the early twentieth century, but as a set of evolving characteristics shared by moving images across the whole inter-medial ecology of technologies and forms” (7, my italics). This, in a nutshell, describes Williams’s work here: it is a panoramic portrait of the “inter-medial ecology” of Joyce’s Dublin leading up to and during his formative years and placing Joyce and his work within a matrix of cinematicity that precedes and later coexists with the origins and early development of cinema.

The book is divided into three main chapters, within which the bulk of the heavy lifting is done. Chapter 1 traces the influence of nineteenth-century magic-lantern culture on Dubliners; chapter 2 examines how advances in the technology of photography, particularly in the study of motion, informed the radical stylistic and structural revisions of Stephen Hero into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; and chapter 3 explores the impact of popular panorama and diorama exhibits in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly as a tool for British imperial propaganda, on certain visual strategies utilized in Ulysses. These long chapters are book-ended by an excellent “Introduction,” which efficiently establishes the theoretical and methodological foundation within the fields of visual theory and intermedial studies, and a “Coda” that briefly considers the extension of these influences into Finnegans Wake—challenging the generally accepted idea that the Wake is a turn away from the cinematographic and visual towards the more exclusively radiophonic and aural. This is followed by a summation in a short “Conclusion,” which ends with the envoi-like sentence: “I hope that this book has made a convincing case that to understand Joyce’s response to the evolution of cinematicity properly we have to dig deeper into its role in his work both before, as well as after the coming of film” (259). Williams certainly does dig deeper, but if there is a failure in achieving this stated goal, it is in maintaining the balance between the before and after of the book’s subtitle. There is indeed consideration of Joyce’s work in the context of an ongoing evolution of visual technologies, both anteceding and postdating cinema, but the emphasis is heavily on the former.

Period2 Mar 2021

Media contributions


Media contributions

  • TitleJames Joyce and Cinematicity: Before and After Film by Keith Williams (review)
    Media name/outletJames Joyce Quarterly
    Media typeWeb
    Duration/Length/Sizepp. 209-213
    DescriptionJeffrey Longacre
    James Joyce Quarterly
    The University of Tulsa
    Volume 58, Number 1-2, Fall 2020-Winter 2021
    pp. 209-213
    Producer/AuthorJeffrey Longacre
    PersonsKeith Williams