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double position Arrow vol 3 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 1, 2004

 


REVIEW ESSAY

Negotiating the ‘Double Position’

Claire Carroll and Patricia King (2003) Ireland and Postcolonial Theory (Cork: Cork University Press).


Robyn Westcott

Macquarie University/Australian National University

 

1. The question of Ireland’s status vis-à-vis the postcolonial project has long been a point of historical and epistemological conjecture. Although subject to repeated invasion by a range of ethnic and political factions from mainland Britain (beginning with the Anglo-Norman incursion of 1170 and followed variously by the Scots, and the English under both Elizabeth and Cromwell), the Irish situation resists easy incorporation into a colonial paradigm. Scholars comfortable with applying an imperial analytic to Ireland in the Early Modern period have argued that the assimilation of Ireland into the United Kingdom via the Act of Union (1801) necessarily introduced a political parity incompatible with the continuation of a colonial dynamic. Similarly, both Ireland’s status as 'mother country' to a sprawling diaspora in the wake of mass emigration in the latter parts of the nineteenth century and the participation of Irish citizens as agents of British administrative and military control in the wider Empire are cited as evidence contradicting the possibility of a colonial relation between England and Ireland enduring past the revolt of the United Irishmen and the close of the eighteenth century. This 'double positioning' of Ireland as colonized and colonizer has complicated its interpolation by postcolonial methodologies. Until recently, little consideration of Ireland had appeared in texts or journals to the postcolonial project. For example, neither the first critical reader in postcolonial literary studies, The Empire Writes Back (1989) nor two anthologies foundational to the broader field of postcolonial enquiry, Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory (1993) and the encyclopaedic Postcolonial Studies Reader (1995) contain any reference, either primary or secondary, to Ireland. Thus, the first task of a collection entitled Ireland and Postcolonial Theory is to concretise the historical position of Ireland as a colony and in so doing legitimate its presence in a discipline that has been circumspect in regard to its claims for inclusion.

2. This volume presents nine original essays framed by an introduction by Claire Carroll and the sub-titular afterword by Edward Said. Carroll’s introduction sets an ambitious agenda comprising the address of 11 key research questions, beginning with "what kind of colony was Ireland?" (p 2) and working through to an assessment of "the relation between the local and the global, the national and the international, the specific and the paradigmatic in postcolonial cultural criticism and theory" (p 3). These questions are set against a broad critical schema that seeks to encourage a presentation of the debate in "a comprehensible form so that others can continue the work of redefining the questions and working through the archives to create not only a theoretically aware and informed but a politically engaged criticism on Ireland and the postcolonial world" (p 3).

3. The nine essays that follow can be seen as grouped loosely by theme. The first two, Joe Cleary’s "'Misplaced Ideas'?: Colonialism, Location and Dislocation" and David Lloyd’s "After History: Historicism and Irish Postcolonial Studies" both focus on the historical and methodological issues that inform the continuing debate over whether Ireland was a colony and therefore if it can be legitimately assessed as postcolonial. A second pair of essays investigates Early Modern Ireland in terms of the relationship of between Enlightenment discourse and conceptions of race, barbarism, civility and the production of a detached subjectivity commensurate with the introduction of civil commerce. "Barbarous Slaves and Civil Cannibals: Translating Civility in Early Modern Ireland" by Claire Carroll reads early English representations of the Irish as barbarous and incapable of reform against Spanish defense of the civilization and cultural practices of the colonized Amerindians. This juxtaposition reveals the extent to which the Irish were progressively rendered as "uncivil" in terms of an Enlightenment discourse that extended rights to individuals, but not to cultures. Luke Gibbon’s essay, "Towards a Postcolonial Enlightenment: The United Irishmen, Cultural Diversity and the Public Sphere" examines the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly the work of Adam Smith, on the formation of Irish nationalist groups such as the United Irishmen. Arguing that the conception of a "man of feeling" whose rational sensibilities would enable free market capitalism automatically produced a Romantic primitive ‘other’ (eg the Gaelic Irish), Gibbons demonstrates the ways in which the leaders of the United Irishmen applied the thought of both Smith and David Hume, concerning the subject as an individual possessed of inalienable rights, to all Irish men, regardless of religion or ethnic origin. The debate continued well into the nineteenth century and was broader then is suggested here. Although Gibbons does not discuss it, in 1848, Arthur O’Connor, in the fourth decade of his exile for his United Irish activities, was still furiously contesting Smith’s legacy with the later-day apostles of laissez faire economics. "Smith’s opinion consists in making the principles of the economical science a means and the happiness, ease and comfort of the whole society, the end", wrote O’Connor in a three volume tome aptly entitled Monopoly: The Cause of All Evil (O’Connor, 1848: Vol 1 p47).

4. Moving to an assessment of the limitations of hegemonic systems of Western representation in the colonial context, Kevin Whelan meditates on the possibility of "rememorising" the spectral quality and traumatic absences of Irish history in "Between Filiation and Affiliation: The Politics of Postcolonial Memory". The threat of cultural annihilation present in Whelan’s article is revisited in Seamus Deane’s essay "Dumbness and Eloquence: A Note on English as We Write It in Ireland" which reflects on the loss of the Gaelic language in Ireland as synonymous with both the calamity of the Great Famine and a belief that the embrace of English as the national language would enable Ireland to access both a program of modernization and modernity as an existential condition.

5. Three papers concerning various relations and affiliations between Ireland and Asia round out the nine original essays. Amitav Ghosh examines the psychic and ideological displacement experienced by both Irish and Indian soldiers who served in the Imperial army in an essay entitled "Mutinies: India, Ireland and Imperialism". Joseph Lennon’s study of the influence of Asian aesthetics on the Celtic Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "Irish Orientalism: An Overview" charts the association of Celticism with the Orient from medieval models of the descent of the Celts from the ancient Phoenicians to the influence of Japanese Noh plays and the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore on the work of W B Yeats and his contemporaries. Lennon argues that the Irish engagement with Orientalism did not replicate the association of power and representation evident in Anglo-French Orientalism, but allowed for the production of a metaphysical and aesthetic space 'outside' of the ravages of sectarianism, where the Irish could not only reflect on the colonial condition but participate in the fashioning of a new narrative of nationhood free of the taint of English and Anglo-Irish oppression. This recourse to a position outside or in excess of imperial constraint is revisited in Gauri Viswanathan’s appraisal of the life and writing of the Irish poet James Cousins. Her essay, "Spirituality, Internationalism and Decolonization: James Cousins, the 'Irish Poet from India'" again considers the influence of Rabindranath Tagore and Hinduism more generally on Cousins’ theory of a post-national internationalism predicated on the abandonment of a global political system which he felt advocated "self-centredness" (p 160) and thus stifled the libratory capacity of "creative energies" (p 160). However, as Viswanathan ultimately demonstrates, Cousins’ romantic appropriation of a continuous and untainted Aryan tradition as way of escaping the confines of western liberal imperialism is simply the substitution of one hierarchy for another, and thus an appeal to the discourses of 'sameness' supporting movements such as nationalism and Unionism in Ireland.

6. Ireland and Postcolonial Theory addresses in toto a conundrum in Irish Studies of almost incalculable magnitude: is it possible to recoup any semblance of a "usable past" (p 5) from a national narrative continually interrupted and redirected by the reverberations of a subaltern history? The essays represented herein are animated beyond the limits of their specific research by a commitment to this task of cultural recovery and historical reorganization. Joe Cleary and David Lloyd position their respective work directly against a revisionist tendency that would minimise the impact of a colonial past on contemporary Ireland. They situate revisionism as a resistance to any form of analysis situating Irish history as the product of "dislocating intersections between local and global processes" (p 45) and thus locate it as bound to an historicism compelled to reiterate myths of modernization and progress. Such an historicism writes David Lloyd, "fixes in their extinction" pasts that "envisaged different futures" (p 46). I would argue that the essays in this volume work collectively against the threat of 'extinction' by actively restoring moments of agency in the Irish – for example Joseph Lennon’s assertion that Orientalism provided a conduit to for Irish intellectuals to actively produce strategies for decolonizing the national psyche or Luke Gibbon’s investigation of the ways in which the United Irishmen responded to and reinterpreted the work of the Scottish Enlightenment.

7. As a body of integrated scholarship, this collection should have wide appeal. It can be accessed without a practiced command of either Irish history or postcolonial discourse and has something to offer to generalist and specialist alike. As a practitioner of cultural studies interested in the production of English and Irish identities, I found the work of Kevin Whelan and Seamus Deane, who write so absorbingly of the role of language and literature in the struggle to overcome "communal catastrophe" (p 118) to resonate most profoundly with my own critical project, but there are multiple points of entry for scholars of history, literature, philosophy and the social sciences. Again, from a purely personal perspective, I felt that perhaps too much of the book was given over to exploring the relationship of Irish writers with India and the Orient. Lennon’s and Viswanathan’s essays overlapped at significant points, particularly when considering the influence of Rabindranath Tagore and examining the appropriation of India/the Orient as constituting a mythical space outside of the Imperial binary. This perception of an overrepresentation of material dealing with Ireland and Asia was compounded by the editors’ decision not to include any papers addressing the relationship between Ireland and its diaspora.

8. If there were a significant criticism to make of this book, it would be that the title itself is a misnomer. What Carroll and King have assembled is a series of detailed and, for the most part, rigorously argued studies of history, methodology, representation and literature in the context of a colonial dialectic. What this volume does not evidence however, is a sustained engagement with the body of texts and evidence most commonly identified as postcolonial theory, be that defined (according to the politics of the individual scholar) as critical work emanating either from scholars associated with the former colonies (for example work by scholars such as Franz Fanon, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Abdul JanMohamed, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ketu H. Katrak, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and Trihn T. Minh-ha to name a very few) or from the post-structuralist ‘high’ French tradition (Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak etc). Indeed, outside of the introduction (which refers in passing to Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, Stuart Hall, Sara Suleri, Robert Young, Anne McClintock, Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra, Aijaz Ahmed, Ella Shoat, Pheng Cheah and Aimé Césaire), the term 'postcolonial theory' is mentioned on only seven pages in the remainder of the volume. The index posits that 'postcolonial theory' is discussed over a 10-page section of David Lloyd’s essay "After Historicism", but a closer reading of this section reveals a largely empirical engagement with historically based assessments of whether or not Ireland is/was a colony. This section is bookended by a mention of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (p 49) and a reference to Stuart Hall’s use of Gramsci (p 59), but again there is hardly a sustained interaction with either theorist or their work. Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Ngugi wa Thiong’o both make an appearance in the endnotes, as does Homi Bhabha who Claire Carroll quotes, and subsequently abandons, in the first paragraph of her essay. I was disappointed by Carroll’s decision to cite Bhabha’s definition of hybridity and his phrase "sly civility" as if only for effect. There is little work that investigates the validity of Bhabha’s conceptions of colonial representation and subaltern resistance in historical and geographical circumstances where a literal difference between colonizer and colonized based on skin colour is absent. To render Bhabha’s familiar maxim of "almost the same but not quite", "almost the same but not white" (Bhabha, 1994: p89) in terms where the construction of whiteness itself is foregrounded (ie in the Irish context) and so problematised would have been a new and significant development in postcolonial theory itself.

9. There is a much greater emphasis in this collection on deriving theoretical substance from work considering Ireland as colonial/postcolonial by scholars who are either themselves Irish or are strongly identified with Irish Studies. For example there are repeated references to work by David Lloyd, particularly his book Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Postcolonial Moment; Declan Kiberd’s study Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation; Joep Leerssen’s works Mere Irish and Fíor Ghael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, Its Development and Literary Expression prior to the Nineteenth Century and Representation and Imagination: Patterns in the Historical and Literary Representation of Ireland in the Nineteenth Century; and Seamus Deane’s edited collection, Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature. This sense of ‘insularity’ (and I don’t invoke this term pejoratively) where work on Irish coloniality/postcoloniality predominantly references and responds to pre-existing work in the same area, as opposed to seeking connections to a broader theoretical project, compounds the sense of estrangement from the main arena of postcolonial theory that I referred to at the beginning of this review. For example, a cursory examination of the journal Postcolonial Studies reveals that it hasn’t published an article directly concerned with Ireland or Irish history in the last five years. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies did publish David Lloyd’s much cited paper "Colonial Trauma/Postcolonial Recovery" in 2000 and followed this in 2002 with the inclusion of two essays on Ireland in a themed issue on postcolonial studies and transnational resistance.

10. However, given the apparently truncated representation of Ireland and postcoloniality in an international context, it would have been interesting for a work entitled Ireland and Postcolonial Theory to perhaps challenge this marginalisation by actively seeking connections with theories or theorists outside of its assumed ambit. The promotion of Said’s afterword (by citing its presence under the title line on the front cover) at first suggests the seeking out of such affinities. Unfortunately, Said’s contribution, despite its technical elegance, adds little to the overall substance of the collection. He lavishes praise on the volume, its contributors and the significance of activating a critical mandate to inquire into "the whole question of Irish identity" (p 177) but then segues into what feels like a decidedly formulaic comparison of Ireland with Palestine. It is a pity that what was potentially a profoundly generative interaction doesn’t prove more fruitful.

 

Robyn Westcott is currently working toward a PhD in Critical and Cultural Studies supervised by staff at both Macquarie University and the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. Her thesis, entitled “Whiteness as Rhizomatic Relation: Maintaining Distinctions between Englishness and Irishness during the Great Famine”, explores how the nexus of narratives regarding race, liberalism, capitalism and individualism shaped the English response to the influx of Irish refugees at the height of the Famine. She holds a BA (Hons) in English Literature, specialising in literary and critical theory and postcolonial literature, particularly writing from West Africa. Email: robyn.westcott@anu.edu.au

Bibliography

Ashcroft, Bill et al (eds) (1989) The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge)

Ashcroft, Bill et al (eds) (1995) The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (London: Routledge)

Bhabha, Homi (1994) The Location of Culture (London: Routledge)

Deane, Seamus (ed.) (1990) Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature (Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press)

Kiberd, Declan (1995) Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (London: Jonathon Cape)

Leerssen, Joep (1996) Mere Irish and Fíor Ghael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, Its Development and Literary Expression prior to the Nineteenth Century (Cork: Cork University Press, rev. ed)

Leerssen, Joep (1996 & 1997) Representation and Imagination: Patterns in the Historical and Literary Representation of Ireland in the Nineteenth Century (Cork: Cork University Press; Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press: and Derry: Field Day)

Lloyd, David (1993) Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Postcolonial Moment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press; and Dublin: Lilliput Press)

Lloyd, David, (2000) Colonial Trauma/Postcolonial Recovery?, Interventions, 2(2)

O’Connor, Arthur (1848) Monopoly: The Cause of All Evil (Paris and London: Firmn Didot, 3 Volumes)

Williams, Patrick and Chrisman, Laura (1993) Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf)


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