Our very own postcolonial moment

On my first trip to the library as a registered student (internal monologue: I have a student card and I am not afraid to use it), I borrowed a book of essays entitled Ireland and Postcolonial Theory. In a sentence, postcolonial theory tends to examine the relationships between groups of people constituted in states and how these relationships have been affected by the colonial experience. You know the kind of thing: we cannot talk about what Ireland is until we examine our colonial past and present; Haiti’s revolution in 1789 is overshadowed by events in Paris in the same year and this matters to our current perceptions of the place. Think Edward Said and the less well-known Franz Fanon and we’re getting places. I have written recently about representations of Irishness and in particular representations of ‘ourselves’ as modern subjects. (Trying hard not to use academically-oriented air quotes here.)

Luke Gibbons’ essay in this book is an examination of the peripheralisation of the United Irishmen’s revolutionary principles in the narrative of Irish nationalisms. Instead of thinking that Enlightenment thought and action can proceed in one way and in one way only, Gibbons seeks the inclusion of all civilisations in a story of modernity. Equating the struggles of Iroquois people with that of the colonised Irish in Ireland in the late 18th century is important to his essay. He relies on the detail provided by Lord Edward Fitzgerald in this reconstitution of the founding narratives of Enlightenment political projects. He also rips 19th century orthodox Marxist conceptions of the modern subject a new one for the ways in which the native and the modern are juxtaposed to emphasise a hierarchy of civilisation.

One of the central representations of European modernity is the hollowing out of the subject within conditions of modernity so that he [sic] may approach the marketplace (of goods and ideas) as a free subject. The emotive, the poetic, the transcendental are replaced by rational calculation and detachment from a natural state in this reconstitution of subjectivity, oriented toward the market. One need only examine the representations of Irishness in Punch cartoons to relate to this hollowing out. Imagery of the dressed ape tells us something about English conceptions of the Irish but also reflects back upon ourselves. In short, one of the central narratives of the long 19th century of Irish nationalism (ending in the Romantic moment) is that of siring a wild Irish nationalism to a civilised conception of nationhood. In the course of that period, Irish politics is transformed from being a raging mob of irresponsible and individualist Catholicism into a respectable body politic headed up by leaders who wish Ireland to take its place among ‘the nations of the world’.

And so to 2010 where the constitution of the late-modern Irish subjectivity is intimately linked with being European, plugged into arrays of international capital and leaving behind the smells and bells. The footage of institutional abuse that we have seen is in black and white when it persisted into the 1970s and 1980s. The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and not the visit of John Paul II in 1979 is the enduring symbol of a high watermark of Catholic hegemony. Migration in 2010 is related to 1950s imagery of young women in hats and coats (Tobin’s Brooklyn anyone?), not the architect who spends her redundancy on a one way plane ticket to Canada. The performance of these representations is “a consensual fiction that organises a community and its relations of authority” (from Lloyd’s essay, same volume). Not fiction in the sense that it is made up, like a child envisions an imaginary friend. Rather, we constitute (perform?) stories about ourselves to feel secure in not facing the violence of the present.


2 thoughts on “Our very own postcolonial moment

  1. Interesting. I’d like to read some comparisons of early-to-mid 20th century migration and similar experiences in the 21st century. Visiting family in County Cork regularly over the past thirty years has given me an interesting outsider’s view of rapid social change in Ireland, but then my family has a tradition of temporarily leaving and returning to Ireland, or at least maintaining strong links (hence why I think of myself as British-Irish, two generations after the family Exodus). I’d be interested to hear how Dubliners and others at the centre of the migration-immigration hubs are experiencing European citizenship.

  2. Naomi, I would like to read those comparisons too. Let me know when you find them ;). It seems to me that being European in some parts of Ireland (because there are key differences) is like an ideological coat that can be put on and taken off when needs must. That’s enough metaphors for one day.

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