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For a collection of essays organized around questions of the untimely, David Lloyd’s Irish Times is a surprisingly timely book. As Ireland confronts increasing unemployment, the bust of the property bubble, and a growing depression, Lloyd’s critical assessment of the Celtic Tiger economy is apposite. But Lloyd does more than simply point out the problems associated with Ireland’s rapid economic growth; he also questions why capitalist growth implies modernization within a historicist framework. Adding a postcolonial dimension to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s “dialectic of enlightenment,” Lloyd draws attention to how colonial modernity produces a number of contradictions: between modernity’s “emancipatory possibilities” and its “concentration and consolidation of power,” between tradition and modernity, and between colonial periphery and the imperial center (2). According to Lloyd, these implicit tensions require us to pursue an alternative conception of historical time which approaches remnants of the past not as elements to overcome and put behind us, but rather as utopic possibilities for the future.
The collection moves easily from discussions of Irish history and culture to Marxist, postcolonial, and psychoanalytic theory, and a shared interest in the question of representation unites the essays. Like Lloyd’s Ireland after History (2000) – a collection of essays that highlights the value of subaltern studies for Irish studies – the essays point to the people, experiences, and cultural formations that are unrepresentable within traditional historicism: the victims of the Famine, the collective labor and culture associated with the clachan, and forms of tradition that remain opposed to the postcolonial state and global capitalism. In the new collection, however, colonial modernity is the primary focus as Lloyd pursues alternative forms such as myth, the sublime, and fragmented narratives, to convey a more ambivalent and just understanding of modernity. For Lloyd, these alternative forms allow us to recognize the past in its diversity: the past as a possibility, and, importantly, the continued violence within the present. Such forms resist the domination of the state and its historicism by opening themselves up “to the diverse and divergent human and natural ecologies whose very multiplicity is incommensurable with domination in any form” (9). In the process, they prompt a reassessment of early nineteenth-century Ireland by resisting its representation as a pre-modern past.
The essays perform the movement between past and present which Lloyd advocates. The opening essay reads the ruins of the Irish landscape alongside Allana O’Kelly’s video installation No Colouring Can Deepen the Darkness of Truth (1992-5); the second and third essays consider how to remember and historicize the Irish Famine without further obscuring its victims; the fourth essay examines the postcolonial temporalities of James Joyce’s writing as a model of an alternative historical time; the fifth essay reads James Connolly’s “Celtic Communism” in order to challenge the assumptions of Western Marxism; and the final essay closes the collection with a reading of Allan deSouza’s Irish photography which invites readers to take up the legacy of Walter Benjamin and embrace a form of history that is not closed and certainly not fixed. Although the essays focus on the particularities of Irish experience, they situate Ireland amongst other postcolonial states, especially India.
Lloyd’s discussion of the Famine is, perhaps, of greatest value to scholars of the nineteenth century. For Lloyd, the Famine is a traumatic event that reveals the limits of historicist discourse by evoking the “indigent sublime.” The indigent sublime not only suggests the indescribability associated with trauma – the focus of many studies of the Famine – but also a specific aesthetic experience “rooted in an apprehension of the insistent duality of human being, at once subordinate to and transcendent of nature and mortality” (51). In other words, the Famine destabilizes the relationship between culture and nature, human and non-human by dissolving the boundaries between subjects and objects, spectators and victims (52). Rather than strengthening the subject, which Immanuel Kant suggests results from a subject’s encounter with the sublime, the “indigent sublime” forces the subject to recognize “the precariousness of subjecthood itself” (52). Preventing critical distance within the present, the legacy of such an experience is the continued spectral presence of the non-human within the human.
If the Famine evokes the sublime, historicist readings and state-sanctioned commemorations of the Famine fail because their aesthetics either erase subjects or shore up “the ethical subject” that Lloyd associates with realism (52). For instance, Lloyd suggests that the historicist “dissolves the violence of the past into the quasi-natural contours of a now pacified, picturesque landscape” (13). By transforming human agents with a viable way of life into inert ruins, the picturesque perpetuates the abstractions at the heart of a capitalist narrative of modernization. In turn, the commemorations of the Famine adopt a realist aesthetic as they attempt to consolidate a form of modern subjectivity and insert Ireland into the developmental narrative of global capitalism. Rather than seeking to represent the past in its contradictions, the commemorations work to orient the Irish people towards the present and future. For Lloyd, this perpetuates Irish loss by actively destroying the forms of agency that resist modernization’s developmental narrative. The argument echoes and extends his groundbreaking Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (1993) by claiming that the relationship between aesthetics and the state not only manifests itself in the realm of the aesthetic – or literature – but also in history and the practice of everyday life.
Ultimately, Lloyd implies that the “indigent sublime” is both an effect of the trauma of the Famine and the proper aesthetic to apprehend colonial modernity. Such an embrace of the sublime is provocative because it offers a new narrative of modernization grounded in contradiction rather than development. Yet, his discussion of historicism sometimes lacks specificity and, thus, seems to have more implications for postcolonial theory than for Irish studies. For instance, Lloyd primarily relies on nineteenth-century sources to demonstrate historicism’s discursive violence and does not seriously engage with contemporary histories of the Famine. If the postcolonial Irish state perpetuates the violence of colonialism by commemorating the Famine as an event rather than a lingering aesthetic, do historians and historicists necessarily do the same? The ongoing debates between revisionist and nationalist historians of the Famine suggest that even if historians tend to avoid the aesthetic, they are highly attuned to the ways that the Famine invites and even requires an emotional response. Many historians of modern Ireland are also suspicious of developmental and stagist histories, recognizing, as Lloyd does, that Ireland’s supposed “fixation on the past,” which Britain used to portray the Irish as non-modern, actually enables forms of history that emphasize the multiple relationships between the past and present (31).
Lloyd’s critical assessment of the subject of history is, perhaps, of greatest value to historians of Ireland. He demonstrates how official and popular forms of history continue to endorse a centered subject even though such centering perpetuates colonial violence. Questioning the extent to which the colonial subject can overcome loss through identification with the state, Lloyd’s “indigent sublime” reminds us that the decentered subject is not just a theoretical construct but also a way of expressing contradictions within history and modernity. Interrogating these contradictions helps articulate the continued violence of colonization and the necessity of an understanding of modernity that does not merely suggest capitalist rationalization.
Mary Mullen recently defended her dissertation, “Anachronistic Forms: Narrative and History in Nineteenth-Century English and Irish Novels” and will soon receive her Ph.d. in English literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.