Deconstructing Ireland (2001) & “Literary Historiography, 1890-2000”

Deconstructing Ireland (2001) ’Literary Historiography’ (2006)

Colin Graham, Deconstructing Ireland: Identity, Theory & Culture (Edinburgh UP 2001), pp.85-87
Whether Ireland as a story to tell which is “like” that of Algeria or a history which precedes (and is a model for) India’s becomes less immediately the burden on which the “proof” of the validity of the colonial resets. The conditions of a series of cultural “moments”, in which one culture seems its own coalescence of definition “against another which it dominates, are in themselves the reasons why the figurations of postcolonial criticism can be effective in the context of Irish cultural production. The structures of colonial (dis)empowerment), not the contours of historical development, are what make Ireland once colonial and , at least putatively, postcolonial.
   These types of long-standing changes in postcolonial criticism have, ironically enough, come about partly as a reaction to that founding moment of post-colonial studies, Edward Said’s Orientalism. Said was immediately, and has been continually, criticised because his scheme of East-West cultural construction seems to perpetuate that which he diagnosed. Nowhere in Said’s construction of the notion of Orientalism could the East speak to the West, nor could it subvert the notions of the East which the West was in the continuous process of forming, and such ideological deadlock frustrated those [85] who saw the colonised as more active agents in the colonial process. The result has been a diverse but nevertheless identifiable movement into what might be called the “liminal spaces” of colonial discourse, marginal areas, where the ultimate opposition of coloniser and colonised breaks down through irony, imitation and subversion. The term “liminal” (of the threshold) is used by Said in Culture and Imperialism in the analysis of Kipling’s Kim, in which Kim’s social and racial position allows him to move with relative, almost arbitrary freedom between coloniser and colonised, British and Indian, traversing and deploying the network of spying and intrigue which is layered over Kipling’s India. Kim’s Irish yet military parentage offers itself as explanation for this capacity to act as nomad within the regulating framework of the colonial system.
   Perhaps the most eminent example of the examination of these liminal spaces comes in the work of Homi K. Bhabha whose notions of colonial mimicry, imitation and agency prise a gap in the Saidian colonial configuration through which the colonised can begin to be seen working against colonial ideology. Benita Parry describes Bhabha’s work as a contestation of the notion which Bhabha

considers to be implicit in Said’s Orientalism, that ‘power and discourse [are] possessed entirely by the coloniser’ ... [Because Bhabha] maintains that relations of power and knowledge function ambivalently, he argues that a discursive system split in enunciation, constitutes a dispersed and variously positioned native who by misappropriating the terms of the dominant ideology, is able to intercede against and resist this mode of construction. (Parry, ‘Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse’, Oxford Literary Review, 9, 1-2, 1987, p.40.)

Parry’s is a sceptical summary, but it does describe accurately the places which Bhabha’s critique has sought to inhabit and, by extension, indicates the stratified sets of debates which Irish postcolonial theory has run into. The direct refutation of Ireland’s postcolonial status by historians is perhaps the least productive example of such arguments (though I will suggest later that certain strands of revisionism have a deconstructive germ contained within them). Bhabha’s “ambivalence” has, equally, been stabilised in Irish criticism into a notional “hybridity” which understands the enunciative split as a replay of the binary divide of colonialism itself and therefore deadens its impact on either side of that divide; Declan Kiberd’s image of the “quilt of many patches and colours, all beautiful, all distinct, yet all connected”, wrapped around the shoulders of Cathleen ni Houlihan, is one striking example of how the hybrid can be reconfigured into old totalities. (Inventing Ireland, 1995, p.653.) Equally David Lloyd’s notion of Ireland as anomalous [36] has suffered by being interpreted as a contradiction (both/neither) which can be rendered meaninglessly the same as before that anomaly was articulated. (Graham, pp.85-87.)

Quotes Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: ‘Deconstruction does not say there is no subject, there is no truth, there is no history. It simply questions the privileging of identity so that someone is believed to have the truth. It is not the exposure of error. It is constantly and persistently looking into how truths are produced. (Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean, eds., The Spivak Reader, London: Routledge 1996, p.27; here p.123.)

On Bhabha: ‘As Homi Bhabha suggests, writing on ‘contingency as the time of counter-hegemonic strategies’: “Such ‘indeterminism’ is the mark of the conflictual yet productive spaces in which the arbitrariness of the sign of cultural signification emerges within the regulated boundaries of social discourse.” (The Location of Culture, 1996, p.172.) For Bhabha, these “productive spaces” are still “restricted” yet abundant. In searching for them, and for the stragegies by which the subaltern may be known, we should remember the affiliative properties of the subaltern (submerging the subaltern further into silence), the subaltern’s relation to subsets of “regulated boundaries” and the need to see the performative aspects of the subaltern emerge wherever the arbitrariness of the sign can be prised into a gap which offers indeterminacy, catching the hegemony off guard and complacent. In this the “popular” text will play a key role.’ (p.121.)

Placing “popular” cultural texts in the theoretical framework of postcolonial criticism is largely untested discursive intersection. Hybridity as a conceptual framework for understanding colonial and postcolonial culture has the advantage of acknowledging culture, when caught between centripetally organised ideological entities, as an often unstable state of affairs in which categories are maintained as ghosts of their original presences. Homi Bhabha usefully argues that colonial domination is reliant on a denial of “its dislocatory presence in order to preserve the authority of its identity”. Bhabha’s initial illustration in his essay is a translated Bible, an “authoritative” cultural text propelled into the domain of the “low” and colonised, and this can enable the leveraging of a potential space in which the cultural and colonial statuses which seek to construct the text allow cross-hatched reading trajectories. […] Following Bhabha, it can be argued that the “colonial” text’s pressure to “authorise” itself, to deny its own dislocation, is eased when that text is placed within what is already a discourse of authority (and in this sense Bhabha sees this struggle to deny dislocation as the weakness and force of colonial texts). Put simply for the case of Irish culture, it may be that it is now only partially possible to read hybridity in Joyce or yeasts since the discourses in which these texts exist (that of Joyce scholarship, for example, or of Irish literature) are already established within what Bhabha calls “teleological narratives of historical and political evolutionism” (Location of Culture, 1994, p.111.) For example, the history of literature, of modernism, or indeed cultural or literary nationalism). (p.156.)

The patchy literary historiography undertaken during the Revival was never entirely able to fill in, for itself, the narrative of Irish literature that led to the founding moments of the Revival. The Revival had to be its own point of origin. In being a revival it had not quite done away with literary history, but it had started from the assumption that almost nothing was in place.

Colin Graham, ’Literary Historiography, 1890-2000’, in The Cambridge History of Irish Literature 2 vols edited by Margaret Kelleher and Philip O’Leary (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006), II, p.568.
‘The patchy literary historiography undertaken during the Revival was never entirely able to fill in, for itself, the narrative of Irish literature that led to the founding moments of the Revival [...] The Revival had to be its own point of origin. In being a revival it had not quite done away with literary history, but it had started from the assumption that almost nothing was in place.’ (p.568; quoted in Margaret Kelleher, Omnium Gatherum: The Irish Anthologist W. B. Yeats, in Michael Hinds, et al., An Irish Reader, Clonliffe: Otier Press 2007, p.71.)

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