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"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be the master -- that's all."-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, 190
- Matthew Arnold long ago articulated what became a popular nineteenth-century British view that the Irish, as exemplary Celts, are by nature sentimental, "always ready to react against the despotism of fact." Today the same argument takes a more complicated form. Stephen Howe devotes an entire book, Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture, to the argument that at least one branch of modern Irish intellectuals is totally incapable of getting the facts straight. For short we'll refer to these critics as cultural theorists, though this category must include any Irish writer who believes that the terms "colonial," "postcolonial," "neocolonial," "imperialism," or any possible variants of these terms, have a bearing or use in the analysis of modern Irish history and culture.
- In the most critical chapter of this book, because it is the one in which Howe confronts the worst offenders head on, he explains that these intellectuals are indeed outside the norm, since, in the contemporary Republic of Ireland, "political culture and debate . . . have moved on far from the 'colonial' insecurities engendering it." In spite of this fact -- and, as you will see, Howe is a master of facts -- the cultural theorists, "inspired at least as much by North American academic fashions as by Irish realities, have been working hard to revive the anachronistic neurosis. Their assumption is that history can be forced into repeating itself" (143). You may have noticed in the quoted phrases a curious contradiction. Even in the gesture with which he divorces the political culture and debate in contemporary Ireland from "'colonial' insecurities," Howe appears to admit that these insecurities engendered this culture and debate. However, the cultural theorists (against the grain of -- what? -- the true Irish? the right-thinking Irish? the silent majority? who at least in this book are silent) want to revive this origin. The latter was already a neurosis and already anachronistic if we are to take the word "revive" seriously. Furthermore, North American fashions contribute an additional element of fantasy to this neurosis, since they are implicitly pitted again Irish realities. In any case, Howe asserts that this twice anachronistic neurosis expresses "an idea all the more readily proclaimed by those who do not believe in history anyway" (143).
- Reading Howe makes me feel like Alice after she goes through the looking-glass. And yet it is odd because I consider myself a cultural theorist, whose work and thought have been influenced by such thinkers as Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, not to mention all those "postcolonial" cultural theorists whom Howe describes as a "narrow, stereotyped, approved lineage" (138), people like Frantz Fanon, Alberto Memmi, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, and so forth, as well as another, no doubt equally "narrow, stereotyped" lineage, which would include everyone from Marx and Freud to Williams, Jameson, Negri, and Zizek. One thing for sure, anyone who has ever read my work would know that I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that words can mean many different things. At the same time, I believe in history, by which I mean that history requires a certain act of faith. It is not that I don't believe in facts or that words can name facts, but I also believe that words interpret facts and inject values into facts. I frankly can't imagine a fact beyond interpretation, but I nonetheless believe that certain facts are true. Despite all this, like Alice before Humpty Dumpty, I am constantly baffled by the strange things that Stephen Howe does with words, the way he makes words mean exactly what he chooses for them to mean, "neither more nor less."
- For example, at the beginning of his book Howe lays down the law on the proper use or misuse of words. We can't use the term "Third World" because "its usage has changed several times" over a forty-year period and it is "obviously essentialist." The word "obviously" is one of Howe's favorites and is generously sprinkled throughout this volume. Though he doesn't define the word "neocolonial," he notes that it "has been far more a term of political polemic ... than of analysis." The same is true of the term "imperialism," the usefulness of which has been undermined because of its pejorative connotations and because "at its most general [it] has been a concept used to refer to any and every type of relation between a more powerful state or society and a less powerful one." "Colonialism" used to be "a more precise term" when it referred to "settlements of farmers or cultivators" in a new place, usually somewhere outside of Europe. Only in the nineteenth century did it come to mean the "'plantation of men'" who emigrated somewhere in order to take possession of land. In British law, it later referred to foreign possessions with a legislature, thus "only territories of white settlement"; but by the beginning of the twentieth century, the term embraced "all areas subject to formal political rule and control by other (usually European) states," thus making it refer to imperialism or "informal modes of domination or influence" (11).
- According to Howe, the problem with the term "imperialism," in addition to its pejorativeness, is that it doesn't define borderline cases, including cases where a country without a "pre-existing claim to sovereignty" is overrun by another country with such a claim or where Europeans are not involved. (By this logic, the Japanese imperialism that brought the U.S. into World War II is a borderline case.) Howe goes on to distinguish between colonialism as "a set of political systems involving conquest and rule by a state over other, previously independent and usually distant territories," and colonization, which refers to a process of settlement rather than a system of control (12). Howe offers numerous refinements on the historical uses and meanings of these terms, some of which he approves of like the ones that suggest a society like Northern Ireland "can no longer meaningfully be called colonial." It wasn't until the late eighteenth century that "the idea of a singular Empire including overseas territories subject to the Crown" became widespread. In the English empire of the sixteenth century or the British empire of the seventeenth century, Ireland "was asserted to be an integral part of a United Kingdom"; but by the eighteenth century it became possible to think of Ireland of a part of the kingdom's overseas possessions (13).
- The problem with all these definitions and terminologies is not that Howe has got the history of these words wrong. It is that he can't see the obvious result of his reconstruction: he can't see the fact, if you will, that these words were never stable. He has a nostalgia for the good old days when a colonizer was just a farmer from somewhere else; and he can't grasp the idea that the dynamic historical forces that produced the histories of these words are still in effect in modern and contemporary contexts. How do you argue that the word "imperialism" is no longer useful because of its pejorative connotations without presupposing that there is a neutral and politically disinterested way of describing the process that has been identified as imperialist, in a pejorative way, by writers and theorists from all sorts of locations in the contemporary world? I guess there are writers for whom the word "imperialism" still suggests the image of a lofty political enterprise (which would be equally evaluative, by the way). Such a view of imperialism is no longer dominant or normalized because the term has been reshaped and recontextualized by historical events and their representations that can't be erased simply by rewriting the dictionaries. Furthermore, Howe implies that any term which produces borderline cases is somehow invalidated, when any term that is strictly defined will almost always produce borderline cases. (No one has yet been able to reinvent the world in such a way as to have it match up perfectly with our languages, except, of course, for HD.) Many scholars and critics have come to the conclusion that the term "Third World" is too problematic to be of much use. This has to do, however, with the kinds of meaning effects the term produces, not with its failure to sustain a consistent meaning. Some critics believe that the concept of a "Third World" naturalizes a hierarchy between different areas of the world, and almost everyone agrees that, with the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the term "Third World" just confuses the map of global power relations. Stephen Howe has every right to criticize the particular usage of a term, but in this book such criticisms are usually limited to some vague appeal to the "true authorities," who are rarely cited at any length, or to his own impeccable common sense. He just insists that a word signifies neither more nor less than what he says it does.
- After his attempt to demolish virtually every significant cultural theorist in Ireland today, Howe rather nonchalantly admits that he has been "sharply critical of almost all applications of the colonial model to Ireland" (142). Actually, he defines his position from the very outset by characterizing various applications of the terms "imperialism" or "colonialism" to the contemporary Irish context. His favorite starts from the premise that, though Ireland was a British colony, it achieved independence in 1921, at least in 26 out of 32 counties. The whole of Ireland did not achieve independence because of "the demands of Ulster Unionists." As a result, "British imperialism, colonialism or neocolonialism, in any analytically useful or politically relevant sense, is not a significant factor today in any aspect of Irish life" (8). Despite this blanket assertion, Howe admits that the old colonialism can credibly be said to have some "cultural and psychological force," presumably as an aftereffect; but in any case, even for those who insist on the relevance of this category for understanding Irish experience, it must be admitted that the empire isn't what she used to be (7). However, he also insists that one position has "stronger intellectual underpinnings than are often credited to it." This is the view that sees "the British Empire and its legacies as in many respects a progressive or civilising force" (9). The last assertion, which is the most egregious, also demonstrates the limitations of Howe's verbal logic. The problematic term, of course, is "civilising."
- None of the Irish cultural critics would deny that colonialism or imperialism fostered a certain progressivism in Irish history if by that phrase you mean that it forced the Irish economy and culture to normalize itself, for example in the nineteenth century, in relation to the dominant models represented by the United Kingdom first and foremost and secondarily by the other wealthy European nations, not to mention the United States. The issue is really whether such progress is the inherent good that imperialist ideologies typically imagined that it was. Luke Gibbons, who occupies a special place in Howe's pantheon of incompetent cultural theorists, is taken to task by Howe for making the claim that James Connolly's historical writings "point to the cultural mediation of market forces, an awareness that economic necessity does not operate in the same way in the undeveloped periphery (particularly under colonialism) as it does in the metropolitan heartlands" (Gibbons, "Dialogue" 30). To this assertion, Howe responds, "Such arguments are, quite simply, not to be found in Connolly's writings, but are rather projected onto them by Gibbons" (63). In point of fact, Gibbons quotes from Connolly's pamphlet, "Erin's Hope," the relevant passages of which are reprinted along with other writings on national identity in the first of the two sections edited by Gibbons in the The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. In the passages Gibbons refers to, Connolly focuses on the uniqueness of Irish history with respect to the survival of Clan ownership of property, which, in some cases he argues, lasted well into the seventeenth century. According to Connolly, some critics will see such a survival as "a real hindrance to progress"; but for Connolly it is a cultural fact of Irish history that explains the conflict between the English and the Irish as "the conflict between rival systems of land ownership" (Field Day Anthology 2:986). In Gibbons's interpretation of these texts, Connolly holds the view that the forces of material progress have to adapt themselves to cultural diversity, which means, in Gibbons's words, that "there is no universal template for modernisation or, for that matter, socialism, but rather they must engage dialogically with the precise cultural, historical and, dare one say, national conjunctures in which they find themselves" ("Dialogue" 30). This might be one explanation for why Connolly participated in the Easter Rising, which, as many critics point out, forced him to subordinate his socio-political agenda to a nationalist agenda. Perhaps Gibbons has it wrong, but he is offering an interpretation of a historical document, while Howe's summary judgment -- in support of which he offers no serious engagement with Gibbons's references (on this issue, what I've quoted above is all he says) -- simply presupposes that historical documents require no interpretation. They are transparent, and thus he doesn't have to challenge Gibbons interpretation with his own.
- When Howe uses words like "progressive" and "civilising" to describe the impact of the British empire on the Irish people, he fails to realize that these terms are not merely descriptive but evaluative. Though you can pile up all the factual evidence you want from the earth to the moon, you can't make the argument that the British empire was a "civilising" force in Irish history unless you have already made the decision that under the influence of the empire Ireland became something better than it might have become in the absence of the British empire. You have to presuppose that modernization is inherently good and that the ideology of progress associated with it is true, that is, that all the advancements toward the end of modernization have improved the lives of the Irish people. The argument also presupposes that modernization is an autonomous, self-contained process that does not merely express particular national interests. Naturally, most historians recognize that modernization has been mediated by national interests (which would support Connolly's view, according to Gibbons, about the "cultural mediation of market forces"); but the ideology of progress hinges on the assumption that national interests are merely instrumental to the end of modernization, which supposedly benefits all peoples and classes. None of the Irish cultural theorists has called for a return to the Clan system, but they do suggest that an understanding of the contemporary Irish situation with its conflicts and contradictions requires some awareness of the roots of those contradictions in Ireland's relation to the British empire and its colonial system.
- No one is going to argue that there hasn't been progress in the quality of Irish life in some areas, in some aspects of the distribution of wealth, including the distribution of services like education and health care. Such a belief in progress would be based on a minimal consensus among Irish, British, European, American, and other scholars from around the globe, including those from postcolonial locations, about the value of modern democracy and the economic foundations of democratic freedoms. Consensus, however, doesn't make critique impossible (but rather the opposite), and it doesn't put an end to the historical development of human needs and demands. When Howe says that there is "no analytically useful or politically relevant sense" in which one can use the terms "imperialism" or "colonialism" to understand recent Irish history, he is basically saying that such a history has no relevance to the present. Of course, as you can see from other contexts in this book, he really means that these terms, in their modern uses, have never been relevant to Ireland. Howe's real disagreement with Irish cultural theory is that it insists on interpreting modern Irish history as the history of a formerly colonized people. He offers very little evidence that contemporary cultural theorists in Ireland believe that either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland is a colony in its present form. He does demonstrate their view that the present state of Ireland must be understood through the lenses of the past, through the history of British domination, which would include the struggle of Ireland to emerge from out of British domination. This means that the Free State and the Republic after 1922 and Northern Ireland after 1920 are not simple breaks with the past that make all reference to British domination meaningless. At what point one can say that the history of imperialism has no bearing on current events in a formerly colonized nation is difficult to establish. It is, in fact, a matter of interpretation.
- Howe seems to think that dictionaries come before contextual usage in the history of a language. In my estimation, readers of postcolonial theories and histories have very little difficulty understanding the complex uses of terms like "colonialism" and "imperialism" in those contexts. I have no doubt that different critics would have different ways of constructing those contextual meanings through the process of interpretation. Howe has certainly made a contribution to this discussion by offering a genealogy of the terms. For example, most cultural theorists would agree that colonialism is, in the words of Howe I quoted earlier, "a set of political systems involving conquest and rule by a state over other, previously independent and usually distant territories." At one point in defining his terms, though, Howe implies that there may be some question as to whether "imperialism" or "colonialism" can be applied to a territory where there is no "clear pre-existing claim to sovereignty, at least of a de facto kind, which the intruders have overridden" (12). If I'm reading Howe correctly (and, unfortunately, I have to interpret his text and take the risk of misunderstanding him), he implies that the occupation of territories like Nigeria or the Congo may not be accurately described as "colonial," since they were not sovereign states, in the European sense, before the arrival of the British or the Belgians. Most postcolonial critics and theorists would object to this viewpoint. The European concept of a sovereign state is not a universal, except within imperialist systems of thought. Howe implies that some critics use the term "imperialist" to refer to any relation between a more powerful state and a less powerful state. There may be some cases of this, but in general cultural theorists see a colonial situation when there is a history of occupation and of direct political control of a territory and its peoples by a powerful nation-state. Furthermore, they see a continuation of this process after independence to the extent that that a formerly colonized economy and culture emerges out from under the control of its former colonizers with political and economic vulnerabilities and cultural contradictions that are not easily resolved.
- In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said defines imperialism as "the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory" and colonialism as "the implanting of settlements on distant territory," which is "a consequence of imperialism." He quotes Michael Doyle to the effect that such rule can be "formal or informal" and "can be achieved by force, by political collaboration, by economic, social, or cultural dependence." Today, according to Said, "direct colonialism has largely ended," though "imperialism . . . lingers . . . in a kind of general cultural sphere as well as in specific political, ideological, economic, and social practices" (9). These definitions are not the last word on the subject, but they point toward the minimal consensus of cultural and postcolonial theorists about the historical meaning of these terms. These meanings are not simply chosen but derive from the contexts that have shaped the emergence of such discourses. Nothing would be more tedious than every Irish critic and cultural theorist beginning every essay with a definition of "imperialism" when the meaning of that word is already obvious from the discursive context. Do you have to reinvent the wheel every time you turn on the ignition? Why is the canon of significant "postcolonial" theorists necessarily "narrow" and "stereotyped"? If they are "approved" in some insidious way, who has done the approving? Not the British state or one of the Irish states so far as I can see. Does critical success necessarily reduce one's work to the status of stereotype? Howe's arguments frequently come down to this: a "colony" is what I say it is, "postcolonial" means what I say it means, "imperialism" means what I say it means; you can look at whatever you want, but if you don't see it the way I see it, you didn't look with proper eyes.
- Overall, Howe disregards attempts to identify the relationship between England and Ireland, at any point between the twelfth and the seventeenth centuries, as having a relationship to imperialism or colonization in the modern senses of those words. In the late middle ages, England had a "long-established if uncertainly grounded claim to sovereignty over Ireland," which meant that "significant parts of Ireland including most of the existing major towns were effectively dominated by English conceptions of lordship, language and law." Presumably, some actual English subjects were there to materialize these conceptions. After the Protestant Reformation and the Union of the Crown in 1603, "English" became "British" domination, which included "joint English-Scottish colonising ventures in Ireland" (21). But Ireland should only be thought of as a "fully-fledged British colony" from the time of "the British-Irish civil wars of 1640-91" (31). During that period, "The Protestant population . . . had expanded from roughly 5 per cent of Ireland's total to 20 per cent, owning almost 80 per cent of the land. Within a few more decades Protestant landholding had expanded to 85-90 per cent of the total." Somewhat reluctantly, Howe admits that "Culturally, and perhaps psychologically, the Ireland of the eighteenth century was thus an English colony" (30-31). Howe assumes that one cannot talk about imperialism or colonialism until the actual modern forms of those institutional structures come into existence.
- Now I am not aware that any credible Irish cultural theorist or any postcolonial theorist has made the claim that the relationship between England and Ireland in the middle ages was identical to the relations fostered by the imperialist systems that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, in Culture and Imperialism, Said makes the following statement: "The high age of imperialism is said to have begun in the late 1870s, but in English-speaking realms, it began well over seven hundred years before." One could certainly accuse Said of speaking outside his field of expertise, though his remark is surely meant to express a relationship rather than an identity between the present and the past. His point is simply that from the twelfth century on there is in English writing "an amazingly persistent cultural attitude . . . toward Ireland as a place whose inhabitants were a barbarian and degenerate race" (Said 220). He references the works of Angus Calder, Seamus Deane, Nicholas Canny, Joseph Leerson, and R. N. Lebow. These authors certainly document the cultural attitude Said mentions. Still, there is another issue here that Howe misses completely.
- In the introduction to the Grundrisse, Marx argued that abstract categories and concepts emerge in history; and though they can have validity for the epochs that preceded their emergence, they are still products "of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations." In this passage, Marx is addressing the concept of labor in general as the source of wealth. This concept, which emerges in the time of Adam Smith and responds to the conditions of labor under a developing capitalism, enables Marx to read earlier economic theories, such as the theory of the physiocrats, in relation to their concrete social conditions. He even goes so far as to make a comparison between the usefulness of the categories of bourgeois society for understanding earlier social structures, on the one hand, and the usefulness of human anatomy for understanding "intimations of higher development among subordinate animal species," on the other (Marx 105). However, Marx carefully qualifies the validity of such a model to distinguish it from a Whiggish view of history. Though earlier forms of society can be understood through the categories of bourgeois economics, they contain these categories "in a developed, or stunted, or caricatured form etc., but always with an essential difference" (106).
- The same rule applies to a historical category like imperialism, even if the word itself has mutated in meaning in any number of different contexts. In other words, there is an essential difference between England's overlordship of Ireland in the middle ages and Britain's economic and political domination of Ireland in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, there is an essential difference between Ireland's colonial status in the eighteenth century and Ireland's incorporation into the empire as a subordinated nation after the Union of 1800. Finally, there is most certainly an essential difference between the forms of colonial and imperialist control, including occupation by the British army, that could exist in the whole of Ireland before 1922, and the persisting colonial economic and cultural relations that could survive in the postcolonial states of Ireland. These differences, however, also bespeak some degree of identity. Certainly, modern imperialism does not exist in twelfth-century Ireland, but the history of Ireland's subordinate relationship to the English and British crowns begins at that time. That seven-century relationship can be meaningfully described as imperialist without insisting that every event or institutional development necessarily leads to modern imperialism or was identical with it. As Howe admits, by the late middle ages the English crown had a "long-established . . . claim to sovereignty over Ireland." Such a claim could not be "long-established" without social practices that made that claim viable to those who made it. Such practices certainly can bear the name "imperialist" not because they offer a causal explanation of the future to come but because they bear a structural similarity to the imperialist social relation they anticipate.
- Simply stated, Howe fails to take into account the way in which the concept of an institutional structure that emerges in historical time inflects the history that precedes it. Without collapsing the present and the past, once a power relation has emerged it makes visible the ground of its emergence, the events that anticipated and facilitated, though they did not make inevitable, the emergence of the power relation. Even the British empire at the end of the nineteenth century, imperialism proper if you will, was never self-identical because it was always in the process of transformation, always undergoing historical change. To see elements of British imperialism and colonialism in Irish history before the seventeenth century is not to mistake the present for the past but to recognize the dialectical interrelatedness of present and past and of different points of the past. According to Howe, it was only after the Treaty of 1921 that "the notion of Ireland as a victim of informal imperialism or neocolonialism" gained ground, "the belief that irrespective of its formal political and constitutional status, the island had been and the 26 counties still were victims of British economic and cultural hegemony" (64). Howe implies that the emergence of these concepts after 1921 discredits any application of them to the periods of Irish history preceding the Treaty. This is the most naïve sort of historical dogmatism, which carried to an extreme would not permit one to write a scientific history of any period before the nineteenth century when scientific history as a methodology emerged. Before the invention of scientific history, the objects of such history supposedly didn't exist.
- Howe aligns himself with the revisionist school of Irish historiography whose members "either deny the relevance of colonialism as a category for understanding modern Ireland or question its significance." For this reason, or at least I can find no other reason in his text, he believes that these historians "have held most of the high ground in recent times." This high ground seems to be determined primarily by the low ground occupied by their opponents, since the critique of "revisionism" comes from a tainted source, "above all from cultural and literary theorists" (76). God save us from literary and cultural theory which threatens to make Humpty Dumptys of us all. Howe eventually makes it clear that the pervasive flaw in Irish cultural studies directly derives from the methodological principlethat the tools and techniques of literary criticism can stand in for those of historical, social, and economic analysis. It is, to the historian, an evident methodological absurdity to base general claims about colonial mentalities on a single text. Yet the few individual colonial texts and incidents discussed in such work are often used not even as 'symptoms' of wider social phenomena . . . but as perfunctory pegs on which to hang sweeping assertions about a generalised colonial situation. (109)On the surface, this sounds like a viable critique, since no one would deny that cultural theory has been most notably present in literature departments, especially in the United States, which, as you may recall, has been such a bad influence on the Irish. The problem is that this view amounts to an incredible oversimplification of the disciplinary conflicts that have characterized the emergence of cultural theories, even in the United States.
- Let's sweep at least one bogey out of the way. It is a gross misrepresentation to argue that cultural theorists normally attempt to generalize about colonial or any other "mentalities" (a term more commonly applied to a particular school of historians than to cultural theorists of any brand) on the basis of a single text or at least a small number of texts. Certainly, there are generalizations in these writings just as there are generalizations in the writings of almost all thinkers, but the purpose of the textual analyses to which Howe refers is not usually the simple one of deriving a generalization from a particular text as Howe makes it appear to be. What distinguishes cultural theory from the history of mentalities is not the limited number of documents under consideration but the theory of the text itself. Most of what passes as cultural theory or cultural studies is critique of dominant or hegemonic versions of history and culture that have in fact generalized about the mentalities of their own and other cultures by reducing a manifold of different texts to the expression of a unified historical matrix of ideas and values. The approach of cultural theory -- whether it calls itself cultural theory or some other name like new historicism, feminism, post-Marxism, or what have you -- is indebted to the deconstructive readings and practices of Jacques Derrida for the understanding of a fundamental tension, even contradiction, between the textuality of the text and the norms and conventions associated with its larger context. The principle that underlies this technique of reading destabilizes the fields of both historiography and literary criticism, at least as these two disciplines were practiced in the middle of the last century. These instabilities, however, do not eliminate the necessity for these fields or the necessity for a distinction between text and context or between literature and history. A deconstructive reading necessarily calls into question or destabilizes any simple relationship between a text and its context or between the particularity of a formal or thematic effect and a more global generic or thematic category. It necessarily questions historical generalizations or universal themes. Such questioning, however, does not eliminate the possibility of a different kind of generalization.
- For example, Derrida has repeatedly analyzed the texts of Western philosophy in such a way as to reveal a pervasive logocentrism that functions as the foundational concept of that tradition to the extent that it operates as the implicit law behind the composition of the texts in question. Through detailed and rigorous textual analyses, he also shows that such a concept exists in flagrant contradiction with other concepts that it disavows but structurally depends on. However, it is a mistake to assume that Derrida is generalizing the conclusions he reaches in a reading of Plato or Rousseau or Husserl -- in reading a single or a hundred philosophical texts -- to the entire tradition of philosophy. Though he often starts a deconstructive reading by positing a generalization in the manner of a traditional history of philosophy, he then proceeds to undermine the coherence of that generalization by isolating all those textual effects that exceed the force of its thematic center. Furthermore, out of the process of reading individual texts one at a time, he ends up formulating a countertheme or countertradition, one that calls into question a supposedly dominant tradition like logocentrism and would seem to be equally pervasive within the texts under analysis. However, the difference between these two concepts is that the latter and more subversive concept -- subversive only in the sense that it undermines the foundation of the dominant concept -- necessarily lacks the power to generalize itself. It is a concept that emerges through the act of deconstruction itself and is therefore an anti-concept, a concept that has no conceptual force to stand alone except in so far as it calls into question the universal and global authority of the dominant concept on which its own existence depends, and vice versa. For this reason, deconstruction can accumulate readings that repeatedly undermine the same or structurally similar general concepts and universal meanings, but it can never generalize from those particular texts to the text of a totalized tradition. Each text must be taken one at a time, and though the accumulation of readings makes generalization inevitable even if it is only implicit, such a generalization must always remain provisional, no matter how many texts lend themselves to the same result.
- According to Howe, cultural theory fails because it applies to the fields of history and culture the techniques of literary criticism. He assumes that there is something like a general or universal technique of literary criticism, at least in the contemporary context. He ignores the fact that cultural theory garners as much opposition from the traditional practitioners of literary criticism as it does from traditional historians like Howe. Obviously, such an approach as I have described above calls into question the very unity of a category like "literature" that would be the pure object of a specialized critical practice. Ultimately, it calls into question the authority on which literary criticism as an institutional practice can be said to rest. This has disturbed many literary scholars who see poststructuralism, cultural studies, new historicism, postcolonial studies, feminism, queer theory -- in other words, every critical practice that Howe would identify as cultural theory -- as a threat to their authority and to the coherence of their disciplines. In my judgment, this is a mistake. To call a category or genre into question, to destabilize its foundation as a pure concept, does not mean that it becomes meaningless, impure, or illogical. Cultural theory does not question the necessity of historical generalization. On the contrary, the practice of cultural critique requires historical generalization as a starting point and produces historical generalization as its inevitable effect, as the shadow of the generalization it critiques. The tension between a text and its context moves in two directions at once. In one direction, a text can only be read through the mediation of a context, through the framework of some sort of historical generalization. Though the historical generalizations that constitute a contextual framework are based on other primary documents or texts, they are also interpretations of those documents, so that generalization requires what Derrida calls "the decision of each reading" (Derrida 63). This decision is taken, either consciously or unconsciously, in relation to each and every primary document; and there is no way of avoiding such a decision and the inevitable risk it entails. Therefore, the other direction in the tension between text and context lies in the movement of the context back to the texts from which it derives, back to a foundation that can never be totally stabilized. Such stability, if it were possible, would be the withdrawal of historical writing from the space of history. Ironically, though Stephen Howe may believe in history, he wants very little to do with it. He wants history without tension or instability. A history outside of history.
- Nothing I have said here amounts to the claim that you can't disagree or argue with cultural theory. It makes little sense, however, to fault cultural theory for reading specific texts or authors against the grain of what Howe posits as a "normal" interpretation of the past -- normal, that is, in the Kuhnian sense of the term. Why shouldn't a reading of a particular text challenge the generalizations of research even if it is the reading of only one text? Inevitably, if you challenge a dominant historical generalization, you are either positing or suggesting the possibility of another generalization, even if it is only the generalization that there can be no absolute or final interpretation. Underlying every historical generalization is the reading of a manifold of historical documents or texts, and to the extent that the decisions that constitute those readings are not visible in historical writing, such writing can be said to rest on invisible foundations. Certainly, cultural theorists who generalize about historical processes on the basis of a single text are risking themselves unnecessarily; but these critics are not writing in a void and their readings operate within larger discursive frameworks, including the fields of cultural theory itself. Howe idealizes historical writing as if he imagines it to be noninterpretive and as if the historical conversation is always broken down into more or less complete units of legitimate knowledge. Though he could easily challenge the arguments of cultural theorists in their own terms by arguing against the decisions they make in reading texts and documents, he rarely does that. His arguments are usually no more than appeals to the authority of normal history as he understands it. He questions any conclusions that deviate from those norms and blames the methodological premises of the cultural theorists for such a deviation. Now it's time to take a good look at Stephen Howe's method of reading.
- As he enters the heart of his darkness, the chapter on postcolonial studies and cultural theory in Ireland, Howe immediately provides compelling evidence of the flaw in these methodologies and in the results they produce. He quotes Irish historian Nicholas Canny, in an interview, complaining about students coming into his history classes with, in Canny's words, "pre-packaged versions of the past designed by post-colonial theorists with present and future agendas." Apparently, what worries and offends Canny is that "people who might read a piece of mine on Edmund Spenser suddenly zoom from that to talk about the recent IRA campaign and would say that this was fully justified because of what Spenser said." After quoting Canny's words, Howe peremptorily announces that one of the purposes of the present chapter of his own book will be "to attempt judgement on how far Canny's charges . . . are accurate." From my viewpoint, Howe's judgment is perfunctory and never transcends the level of Canny's original remarks. With all due respect to the latter, whose work on Irish colonial history is invaluable, how can he complain that people may distort what he says about the Irish past by using it to justify contemporary violence and then turn around and condemn an entire intellectual field because of people who use it to justify contemporary violence? Of course, Canny is convinced that, in his own words, "undergraduates . . . really have no respect for the past because the people who taught them haven't any respect for the past." He might consider the fact that he also teaches these students and give the same benefit of the doubt to others that he obviously gives to himself. In any case, Howe is going to test Canny's judgment on postcolonial theorists, a judgment that, in my view, seems to derive more from academic in-fighting and pettiness than from disciplined study and observation and which attributes to postcolonial theorists not only present agendas but future agendas that they haven't even thought of yet. Unlike Canny in his serious historical writing, however, Howe precedes his critique of colonial and postcolonial discourses, not only in Ireland but in general, with the disclaimer that he can do this here only "in abbreviated and rather peremptory terms" (108). From my viewpoint, that phrase summarizes the method of this entire study.
- Such a method boils down to more Humpty Dumpty-styled logic. For example, one might assume that a historian would be more sensitive than other critics to the way disciplinary contexts shape critical discourses. Yet it is obvious that Howe doesn't grasp even the elementary rules that govern the discourses of postcolonial or cultural theory. For example, he announces that some scholars today, "especially those in literary and cultural theory, very frequently assume that European colonialism was a wholly willed phenomenon" (110). First, anyone with even a vague knowledge of cultural and postcolonial theories would know that most of these discourses -- at least the ones that Howe shows himself to be primarily concerned with, those associated with the Irish and other European-educated cultural critics -- have been profoundly impacted by the poststructuralist critiques of the subject, intentionality, and historical causality. Terms like "unconscious" and "overdetermination" are, if anything, overworked in discourses of this sort. No one is making the claim that European colonialism is "a wholly willed phenomenon" if by "willed" you mean a phenomenon that was the result of a concerted effort reducible to a singular intention on the part of a specific group of individuals who fully comprehended the political and ethical consequences of what they were doing.
- Still, you have to wonder what Howe is suggesting. Was European colonialism an accident? Was it an inevitable by-product of technological progress associated with industrial capitalism? Was it the outcome of divine providence? I hate to follow in Howe's footsteps when he refers to Nicholas Canny and base anything on the views of undergraduates I have taught; but not to see some purpose, not to see some structural intention in the colonial system, resembles the theory one of my students came up with some years ago to explain racial oppression in the United States. Though he admitted that racial oppression existed in this country, he theorized that the simplest explanation of it is the best. It is the product of chance. Black people were just not very lucky. Howe asserts that the view of colonialism as a willed phenomenon "may seem natural enough, but it is made without argument or evidence" (110). Naturally, Howe offers no evidence or argument to support this generalization about cultural theory. His unstated assumption would seem to be that he doesn't have to quote sources and make an argument since the significance of postcolonial and other cultural theories is transparent to the astute historian. He has some sort of x-ray vision that can dispense with reading these documents. Ironically, in contrast to the view of colonialism that he associates with postcolonial theory, he offers a view of the British empire that strongly resembles the one that I find in postcolonial theories: "a patchwork quilt, an enormously varied set of forms of rule and domination, largely the product of improvisation and full of internal contradictions and strains, rather than a deliberately constructed global system" (110).
- Edward Said quotes V. G. Kiernan to the effect that "Modern imperialism has been an accretion of elements, not all of equal weight, that can be traced back through every epoch of history" (Said 11). All of the work of Homi Bhabha explores the contradictions of imperialism that make it inevitable that the relation between colonizer and colonized is reversible and that the center is always contaminated by the periphery it constructs, so that what Wilson Harris calls the "collision of cultures" inevitably creates multiples centers that allow the empire to write back. Said refers to "Overlapping Territories, Intertwined Histories" in the first section of Culture and Imperialism. In any case, no postcolonial or cultural theorist that I've read is under the illusion that the British empire was without contradictions or that it was anything but "enormously varied" in its methods of rule and domination. Nonetheless, Said, Bhabha, and others would insist that it was a hybrid system of rule and domination, which did require "decent men and women to accept the notion that distant territories and their native peoples should be subjugated" (Said 10).
- Finally, let's take a look at the texts to which Howe gives a name: the Field Day group, the cultural postcolonials, all those who have been terribly contaminated by American trends and the bad influence of scholars like Edward Said and Hayden White. I'm not going to rehearse the entire lineup, just the ones that seem to be the most significant, the Kurtzes in the heart of this darkness. First, there is Seamus Deane, whom some call the dean of Irish studies. Actually, Howe seems hesitant to criticize Deane who is rather famous for his critique of Irish nationalism as an inverted form of British imperialism; but this isn't good enough for Howe. Dean slips by criticizing "revisionist" historians and suggesting that their "pretence to 'objectivity'" may disguise a political intention. Actually, to go from Howe's text back to the General Introduction to the Field Day Anthology from which he quotes is quite a startling experience. Howe very selectively chooses and orchestrates citations that imply Deane's total rejection of historical complexity when something rather the contrary would actually seem to be the case. For instance, when Deane uses the phrase "pretence to 'objectivity'," he is not even referring to the more recent school of revisionism that Howe means to defend but to a general tendency in the counterarguments of non-nationalist writers to the writings of romantic nationalism and its derivatives throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the context, he makes it very clear that romantic nationalists and their descendents, in the effort "to create a counter-culture and to define it as authentic to the nation," made use of "historical and archaeological scholarship in a tendentious and polemical fashion." He then refers to groups who "rebuked" such scholarship from the positions of "unionism, liberalism, and internationalism." These are groups that had their own "political animus" or agendas, according to Dean, though they usually sought to disguise those agendas: "the most frequently worn disguise was, in history, the pretence to 'objectivity' and in literature the claim to 'autonomy'" (Field Day Anthology 1:xxii).
- Howe sees in all of this a "thinly veiled polemic against 'revisionist' historians" (113), and I would agree that Deane is situating those scholars within the larger context of a historical conflict of interpretations. I refer the reader to the arguments of Edward Said, Hayden White, and numerous others who have stressed the inevitably political or ideological nature of historical interpretation, just as others like Theodor Adorno and Peter Bürger have explored the political, social, and economic value of the autonomous work of art. Deane is clearly not rejecting objectivity as a regulative norm in scholarship, but he is stressing that an objectivist methodology is not antithetical to a political orientation. The historian, no matter how objective his methodology, is finally a reader of texts or, if you prefer, of documents; and at some point in the process of reconstructing the past, he or she has to make decisions about the meanings of a document, about which documents are most significant, about which words from a document need to be quoted out of their original context, and so forth.
- In defending the pluralist approach to Irish history in the Field Day Anthology, Deane describes an antithetical approach in this way: "Historians of limited philosophical resource still long to answer the question, 'What really happened then?'" Instead, the Anthology will present, as it inevitably must since it is an anthology, the history of a conflict of interpretations about the "significance of what 'really' happened" (Field Day Anthology 1:xxi). Howe assumes that these historians of "limited philosophical resource" would include the revisionists, and I agree with this interpretation. Deane is not refuting those positions, but he is suggesting that they are positions and that there are alternatives to them, both in the past and in the present. Deane then makes the point -- which Howe seems to find self-evidently false since he offers no evidence that would contradict it -- that during "'revisionist' periods" of historical thinking and practice, objectivism frequently expresses "an anxiety to preserve the status quo, to lower the political temperature and to offer the notion that historical processes are so complex that any attempt to achieve an overview cannot avoid the distortions and dogmatism of simple-minded orthodoxy." Deane then infers that such a view makes "criticism and rebellion" impossible, since "rebellion is, of its nature, devoted to a simplified view of a complex situation" (Field Day Anthology 1:xxiii). Howe reduces these statements to the view that "the rebel is necessarily a simplifier" and that "stress on complexity and the need for accuracy serves the status quo." His refutation comes down to the judgment that this view is "peculiar or even mystificatory" (113). But Deane never makes such a blanket statement about accuracy, and who could really disagree with his observation about rebellion? His point is simply that so-called objective historians often use their methodologies to serve the interests of power. He does not reject the necessity for objectivity as a scholarly norm, and Deane's work as a whole could not fairly be described as wildly subjective or romantic. His statements about rebellion and objective history are theoretical statements and interpretive decisions. They are certainly open to question and should be questioned. They stand with other theoretical elaborations that explore the conflicts between theory and practice.
- Howe admits that Deane is no simple proponent of nationalism when he describes it as "an inverted image of the colonialism it seeks to replace" (quoted, 114). He does criticize Deane for his "curiously unstable" view of historical writing because Deane attributes to such writing both an "allegiance to fact" and a creative function (116), though Howe knows full well that such a position is hardly "peculiar" to Deane or to the Irish since it is virtually a commonplace in poststructuralist discourses and in the thinking of radical historiographers like Hayden White and Dominic LaCapra. He may have some justification in criticizing Deane's reduction of all history and literature to "forms of mythology" (116). However, some reference to the context of Deane's work would make it clear that mythology does not simply mean falsehood in this context. Dean means that history is an interpretation of the facts, not a simple display of them.
- Howe's criticism of Declan Kiberd isn't that different from his criticism of Deane, so I'll limit myself to a few words on this presentation. I should point out, however, that here as elsewhere Howe is guilty of every form of scholarly slippage that he attributes to and criticizes in the Irish critics in question. Kiberd stands accused of celebrating "the nationalist tradition," even though he also "damns it and appears to suggest that the philosophy behind it, a cultural nationalist essentialism, is precisely what he thinks must be overcome." For this reason, Kiberd is guilty of the "essentialism" he condemns (122). Howe offers no quotations that actually support these claims. It seems to me that, in his Inventing Ireland, Kiberd more or less aligns himself with Deane's critique of Irish nationalism as, to some extent, replicating the identity structures of imperialism, a view which Dean took from the early work of David Lloyd, Nationalism and Minor Literature. It was never Deane's viewpoint, as far as I can tell, that the whole of Irish cultural nationalism can or should be reduced to essentialism, though there is sometimes an essentialist tendency within it. Howe seems to assume that any argument for the positive value of Irish cultural nationalism is an argument for essentialism. The whole of Kiberd's study hinges on the Fanonian distinction between, on the one hand, nationalism as an ideology that structures and interpellates identities of one sort by erasing identities of another and, on the other hand, national consciousness, which is more dynamic and indeterminate construction of a social identity in a situation of conflict and struggle. He faults Kiberd for criticizing V. S. Naipal and Conor Cruise O'Brien as backsliders from the anti-colonialist cause, as if to criticize these two writers who have been widely criticized by postcolonial and other critics makes you an essentialist. Howe never even refers to the distinction between nationalism and national consciousness, though he faults Kiberd for relying "heavily and somewhat uncritically on Edward Said and Frantz Fanon" (122). There is no explanation as to why Kiberd's references to these critics is uncritical, though this judgment seems to be one of the ungrounded presuppositions of Howe's study.
- With Luke Gibbons, we enter the heart of the heart of darkness, the real "bad guy" of Howe's survey of Irish studies. I've already referred to one instance in which Howe distorts and misreads Gibbons, but the attack is so unrelenting that I think it appropriate to spend more time on it. For instance, in his two editorial contributions to the Field Day Anthology, Gibbons has a "dual purpose," according to Howe: "to rehabilitate the nationalist legacy by demolishing hostile 'revisionist' views of it, and to press the case that Ireland's position remains essentially a colonial one" (125). Any reader of Gibbons's two introductions in the Field Day Anthology will have difficulty locating the argument that Ireland today is a colony, either north or south. Gibbons's view is the rather different one that the present state of Ireland derives from a history of economic and cultural domination which he identifies with the term "colonialism." Howe faults Gibbons for articulating the view that "a continuous and relatively homogeneous cultural nationalist tradition" is the construction of the revisionists themselves, though he does not summarize or quote the actual arguments Gibbons makes to support this viewpoint.
- Gibbons's second introduction in the Anthology is on "Revisionism and Cultural Criticism" and actually refers back to the material in his first introduction on "Versions of National Identity" as the primary ground of a critique of the revisionist interpretation of Irish nationalism. Oddly enough, Howe says of the first set of selections that it "successfully (even if with an all too evident political purpose) makes the point that conceptions of Irishness in nineteenth-century nationalist thought were very diverse" (126). This description is inaccurate in one sense: almost all of the writings in this selection were published in the early twentieth century, the earliest being an essay by Connolly dated 1896. These are not exclusively 19th century conceptions of Irish national identity but a rather rich selection of those conceptions from the two decades before and the two decades after the Irish revolution. Gibbons never claims that these writings represent some sort of "Irish mind" or even a "mentality." On the contrary, it is primarily as a critique of the Celtic mentalité that Gibbons musters all these examples, fourteen or so writers, who are well known for their links to the Irish nationalist movement. In other words, the textual evidence for the diversity of nationalist thinking at the time of the Irish revolution exceeds anything you will find against it in Howe's text. Furthermore, Gibbons's introduction to these essays on national identity begins with an epigraph from G. B. Shaw that fairly well correlates with what appears to be Gibbons's own position in both introductions: "Nobody in Ireland of any intelligence likes Nationalism any more than a man with a broken arm likes having it set. A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones" (Field Day Anthology 2:950).
- In the introduction to the second selection, Gibbons makes it perfectly clear that the primary focus of his critique is not on so-called scientific history but the historical polemicists who are more popularly associated with revisionism: Seán O'Faoláin, in the earlier period, and Conor Cruise O'Brien, since 1970. To the extent that he makes global claims about revisionism, they are no more globalizing than the claims Howe is making about Irish cultural criticism in general, even though I find much more substantive evidence in Gibbons' writing than in Howe's. He chooses to focus on the writings of Thomas MacDonagh in response specifically to Cruise O'Brien and to the extremely influential work of F. S. L. Lyons, Culture and Anarchy in Ireland 1890-1939. Gibbons quotes Lyons to the effect that MacDonagh, who participated in the Easter Rising and was executed as a result, was one of those "already imbued with the doctrine of blood sacrifice" before the events of 1916. Gibbons, in my estimation, provides more than adequate textual evidence that Lyons has simply committed an error of historical interpretation. He then offers a speculation as to the motive for such an error. He is not saying that Lyons intentionally misrepresented the truth. He is rather offering a cultural rationale for the tendency to lump all nationalists into the same category. His theory boils down to this: if you are a supporter of modernization and see cultural nationalism as an ideological hindrance to that process, then it may be desirable if you can show such an ideology "to be a rigid, continuous tradition, unable to register difference or social change" (Field Day Anthology 3:566).
- Then Gibbons points out the irony in the fact that originally the revisionists posited themselves as cosmopolitan in contrast with a narrowly chauvinistic nationalism. In the last thirty years, however, with the rise to prominence of what is loosely called French theory, there has been a reaction of revisionist critics to such outside influences. Gibbons takes aim at Edna Longley for her critique of Deane's supposed "manicheanism" which "betrays more clearly than usual the strains of reconciling Derry with Derrida" (Field Day Anthology 3:652). Generalizing from Longley's position may seem unfair, according to Howe's logic, though such generalizations never seem to bother Howe with his constant referencing of North American critical fashions as the epitome of tendentious scholarship, a view for which he never provides any textual evidence. Apparently, nationality only counts when it supports Howe's view of the world. In point of fact, if Howe has evidence that revisionist historians and cultural critics (God forbid they should be theorists) have not rejected critical theory, he doesn't present it.
- Howe also faults Gibbons for a reading that would make Edmund Burke into "a kind of 1990s cultural nationalist-cum-postmodernist" (126). He criticizes Gibbons for suggesting "without textual evidence [that Burke] 'had little sympathy for triumphalist versions of Britishness which sought to trample on the rights of other cultures, and which would construe any badge of difference -- the Irish language, Catholicism, or, in our own time, even Gaelic games -- as a form of subversion'" (126). The article Howe quotes from is an occasional piece that was read on BBC Radio 3 as a Burke commemorative lecture (11 July 1997) after having been given as an address to the Burke bicentenary conference at Trinity College on July 9, 1997. It is clearly intended to be a popular, journalistic piece of writing. It contains numerous quotes from Burke, though it does not include page numbers. In the passage in question, Gibbons admits that Burke was "a defender of Britishness" but not of triumphalism. In the same paragraph, Gibbons quotes from Burke's criticism of the Protestant celebrations of Cromwell and King William, identified in Burke's own words with "those terrible confiscatory and exterminatory periods" (Gibbons, "Edmund Burke" 22). Everyone familiar with the field of Irish studies knows that Gibbons has been working for years on a massive study of Burke, and it seems rather disingenuous of Howe to imagine that the views in this essay are not going to be fleshed out in more scholarly detail in that work. It is also unlikely that Gibbons made up the quotations or that they are, as Howe hints, the mere products of Irish imagination.
- Howe performs a similar demolition job on a nine-page article by Gibbons that is clearly another occasional piece. In that essay, Gibbons makes the argument that a few members of the United Irishmen criticized the blind universalism of some Enlightenment thought, "refracting the Enlightenment itself through the prism of cultural diversity" (Gibbons, "Alternative Enlightenments," 127). Howe characterizes this as a claim that the United Irishmen anticipated 1990s postcolonial theory and that Gibbons equates Enlightenment with imperialism. He misses the point that Gibbons wants to show some diversity in the origins of Enlightenment thought that could possibly render it usable for modern postcolonial nation-states. Again, according to Howe, "Gibbons offers not one citation or quotation from any United Irishman in support of any of these claims about their thought" (127). In fact, there are several quotes from United Irishmen in the essay as well as a range of references to Irish scholarship on this subject. However, the essay appears in a volume celebrating the occasion of the bicentennial of 1798; and like the other essays in that volume, it lacks footnotes and pages references. Is this really a debate about documentation?
- Howe's most ingenious and disingenuous attack on Gibbons uses the cover of another Irish scholar, Francis Mulhern. Howe applauds Mulhern's critique of Gibbons as one who can't think of Ireland "except in terms of nationality, or of nationality in other than the special terms of nationalism" (Mulhern 158, quoted in Howe 127). Howe plays an interesting shell game in the way he uses quotations in this section of his book. He first presents a quotation from Mulhern's reply to Gibbon's reply to Mulhern's review of the Field Day Anthology. This is shortly followed by a series of sentences, with quotations from Gibbons that are supposedly "[r]esponding to the criticisms of Francis Mulhern" (127). Howe creates the impression that Gibbons is responding to Mulhern's claim that Ireland can no longer be taken as a colony "three generations after independence" (Mulhern 161, quoted in Howe127), which comes from Mulhern's reply to Gibbons's reply to Mulhern's review. In the quotations Howe presents, Gibbons is actually responding to Mulhern's criticism of the two introductions that Gibbons wrote for the Anthology. Primarily, Mulhern has reservations about Gibbons challenge to "the hostile stereotype of Irish nationalism as a monolithic, exclusivist or even racist cult of ethnic essence." He says, "What is decisive for Gibbons . . . is the presence within the national movement of an unmystified, pluralist current of thought, instanced in the work of Thomas MacDonagh and Aodh de Blácam. The point is well made and must be taken, but we do well not to rush to conclusions" (Mulhern 152). Like Howe, Mulhern agrees that, in his selections of the mostly early twentieth-century Irish theorists of nationalism, Gibbons has made a strong case for diversity and flexibility in the concepts of Irish nationality belonging to the generation that participated in or witnessed the Irish revolution.
- In my estimation, Mulhern's argument simply represents his honest disagreement with Gibbons (and ultimately with Fanon and Said) on the revolutionary significance of nationalism. Mulhern asserts the view that nationalism is always monolithic: "the rhetoric of nationality insists on closure, on the ultimate sublimation of class and gender antagonisms in the sameness of national 'difference'" (Mulhern 154). Mulhern is not impressed with the fact that for Thomas MacDonagh nationalism was not a racial or ethnic essence but, in Gibbons's words, "something to be achieved as part of a concerted, cultural effort" (Field Day Anthology 3:563). Mulhern sees such a concerted effort as the goal of the Anthology itself, and he demurs. He sees no positive value in cultural nationalism. In response to this, Gibbons describes Mulhern's views as expressing "indifference to any form of cultural specificity" (Gibbons, "Dialogue" 29). Howe sees this as a response to "any scepticism about the historical nationalist project" (128). On the contrary, it is a response to a narrowly reductive view of nationalism that would eliminate any possibility for what Fanon called "national consciousness."
- Then Howe claims that, according to Gibbons, any scepticism about nationalism is "to be linked . . . with sympathy or subservience toward the 'Protestant Ascendancy' and 'the might of the British Empire'" (128). Gibbons never makes any such accusation against Mulhern. The exchange goes like this. In his first introduction, Gibbons quotes Connolly on the need to emphasize Irish history in determining "social strategy." He describes Connolly's "tendency to look towards the (historical) nation rather than the (abstract) state as the focus for political mobilization" (Field Day Anthology 2:953). This leads to the following remark by Mulhern in his review of the Anthology: "For 'history' and 'nation', read 'dominant local tradition'" (Mulhern 152). To this reduction, Gibbons fires back: "for native culture over the centuries, he suggests, read 'dominant local tradition'. I would like to ask: dominant over whom? Over the Protestant Ascendancy? Over the might of the British empire?" (Gibbons, "Dialogue" 28). Gibbons is not accusing Mulhern of sympathy with a Protestant Ascendancy or with the British empire, neither of which any longer exists. He is suggesting that the phrase "dominant local tradition" does not fairly represent what Connolly meant by Irish history. The historical nation Gibbons refers to is what he takes to be the focal point of Connolly's remark that the revolutionary "must first of all learn to look inward upon Ireland for his justification, rest his arguments upon the facts of Irish history" (Field Day Anthology 2:953). Who did Ireland dominate? Mulhern would probably say that Ireland dominated its own people.
- Gibbons is certainly not ignorant of the historical violence of Irish (however you interpret that term) against Irish. That simply is not his focus in this writing. Mulhern is espousing a classical and somewhat out-of-date Marxist view that nationality is a retrograde category in the struggle for international socialism. Let's just say that Mulhern is no Fanonian. Finally, and this is the real crux of the matter, Howe sees a traditional Irish nationalism in Gibbons's reference to contemporary Ireland as "a culture still trying to come to terms with centuries of colonial domination" (Gibbons, "Dialogue" 31; Howe 128). This phrase comes at the end of Gibbons's response to Mulhern's review and is simply foregrounding the fact that "three generations after independence" the Irish are still struggling with the legacy of colonial and British domination. That doesn't mean that any part of Ireland is a colony of the British empire. However, only the most naïve and dogmatic critical viewpoint could assert that even after three generations the entire legacy of Ireland's relation to English or British domination has been eradicated and is no longer a critical factor in understanding the current situation of that nation (but can we use this word to describe Ireland? what word can we use according to Mulhern or Howe?). Does one really imagine, for example, that in fifty years, or a hundred years, the effect of British colonialism will have been eradicated from the African continent? Such narrow historical perspectives easily become excuses for the abdication of responsibility for the current global distribution of wealth. Gibbons is not living in the past, as Mulhern suggests (Mulhern 160). But he does believe that the interpretation of the nationalist traditions that lay behind the Irish revolution have consequences in the present. Not only is Gibbons not dismissive of any scepticism about national identity, he defines precisely what is an appropriate scepticism: "The difficulty with national identity is not when it speaks from a subject-position, but rather when it entertains delusions of superiority and universality, aspiring to the omniscience of his master's voice." Gibbons recognizes that such versions of Irish national identity have existed, but his contribution to the anthology was "precisely to afford another set of possibilities, tracing a dissident line of nationalist thinkers at the turn of the century" (Gibbons, "Dialogue" 29).
- Howe also reserves a special venom for David Lloyd. Once again we learn that an Irish cultural theorist makes claims about the history of Irish colonial subjects on the basis of too narrow a range of texts. According to Howe, Lloyd's interpretations of racism and colonialism in texts by Charles Kingsley and Thomas Carlyle are "seemingly unsupported by any extensive reading of colonial history" (129). You would get the impression if you didn't know the essay by David Lloyd in question, "Race under Representation," that the essay is primarily about Ireland. In fact, it is hardly about Ireland at all. It is a theoretical analysis of the cultural origins of racism and focuses more on the philosophy of Kant than on anything to do with Ireland.
- Nonetheless, Howe says that Lloyd goes "to the peculiar lengths of ascribing to the English the view that in the natural order of things the Irish, as colonial subjects, should be black. The sole evidence for this is two overworked quotations from Charles Kingsley and Thomas Carlyle" (129). Again you would get the impression from Howe that Lloyd has made a generalization about 19th-century British viewpoints backed up with only two pieces of evidence. In fact, that is an utter distortion of the essay in question. Lloyd makes an argument about the cultural grounds of racism and uses Kingsley and Carlyle as examples to illustrate his point. These are the sentences that lead up to the references to Kingsley and Carlyle: "Instances of racism where the visual index of difference is by any measure minimal if not absent throw the cultural logic of racism into relief with peculiar force. In such instances of white on white racism, the fantasmatic projection of differences appears as a wishful resolution of a disturbance in the visual field." Lloyd then quotes Charles Kingsley's "overworked" letter to his wife in 1860 in which he refers to the Irish as "human chimpanzees" who are now better taken care of "under our rule" than ever before, though he sadly notes, "to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins ... are as white as ours" (Lloyd 76). Lloyd goes on to refer to Carlyle's description of the Irish as "the white negroes." Both examples are said to represent "an anomaly in English racist discourse" (Lloyd 77). In one of the footnotes to this section of the essay, Lloyd refers to the work of L. P. Curtis, which offers ample evidence of what one might call "English racist discourse" about the Irish. Curtis's work is well-known to scholars in Irish studies, as Lloyd would know. Howe notes that "in Lloyd's work even more than in the other authors discussed here -- and precisely because of his unequaled breadth of reference -- a highly sophisticated theoretical apparatus is deployed in the service of what is, in the end, a fairly crude and manichean politics" (130). Since even Howe admits that in Lloyd's first book, Nationalism and Minor Literature, he offers one of the most sustained and effective critiques of nationalist ideology in the nineteenth century, which was then taken up by Seamus Deane and other Irish cultural critics, it becomes increasingly clear that, in Howe's view, any critical position is manichean that does not out and out condemn Irish nationalism of any sort or that accepts the principle that the history of Ireland is, in some sense, the history of a dominated region that bears some similarity to the experience of other "colonized" regions of the world, even if the term "colonial" may not be the precise term for all seven centuries of the English or British presence in Ireland.
- As Howe correctly recognizes, Lloyd's essay is a form of cultural theory, that is, a critique of the grounds of historical generalizations about human ways of life, cultural practices, and social identities. It is a theory, not a dogmatic articulation of unmediated truth. Howe's work, by contrast, posits itself as the truth pure and simple, often so simple as to require no serious engagement with the work he dismisses, and posits the work he criticizes as simply false, incompetent, imaginative (in the negative sense), and altogether unworthy of critical consideration. Who espouses a manichean viewpoint in this context?? Howe accuses Lloyd of "old-fashioned" manicheanism for using the phrase "bourgeois ideology of the state" (130), which, by the way, in the context to which Howe refers, Lloyd is using to criticize the "ideology of nationalism" (Lloyd 208). To argue that the bourgeois ideology of the state "replicates" the ideology of nationalism is usually not seen as a manichean polarity. This argument about the ideology of "old-fashioned" Irish nationalism was rather new in 1987 and was Lloyd's first important contribution to Irish studies. Howe says that these phrases are "unelaborated" though I would think that if anything they have been overelaborated by Marxist theory. In any case, Howe forbids any reliance on context in the interpretation of critical writing: all words must have one and only one meaning, à la HD.
- One could spend one's life tracing down the misreadings in Howe's book. He almost likes the work of David Cairns and Shaun Richards but faults it for "using a handful of canonical texts as supposed substantiation for claims about national trends in society and mentality" (131). Yet, in their book, these authors are not, strictly speaking, exploring "mentalities" but what cultural theorists after the late Foucault call "discursivity." It seems to me that their work is meant to provoke research and not to be the definitive articulation of it. Their examples are not exclusively from literary texts, as Howe would lead you to believe; but it is true that, unlike Howe, they do not have direct access to absolute knowledge. In another move, Howe places more importance on Said's identification of Yeats as the first poet of decolonization than it deserves. Actually, I agree with him that Said took a misstep in that essay and attributes a political consciousness to Yeats of which there is little evidence. But how relevant is this in the big picture that emerges from Said's work, which is not primarily focused on Ireland? Though it is good to know that Gerry Smyth, author of Decolonisation and Criticism, has a "not very precise" grasp of the "often obscure thought" of postcolonial theorists Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, should we take Howe's word for it that Howe himself has a good grasp of them, especially since he doesn't seriously engage with the main body of their work at all? Furthermore, he hardly shows himself to be a careful reader of theoretical texts.
- One of the mantras of Ireland and Empire is that Irish cultural critics have failed "to engage in any way with the politics and culture of Unionism" (139). While there is undoubtedly more to be done in this area by Irish cultural critics, Howe's critique, even in the rare instances when it may be valid, is undermined by his lack of any critical purchase on his own political commitments. Throughout this book, his sympathy for Unionism in Northern Ireland could not be more apparent. He notes that "the colonial model itself is double-edged, with northern Unionists viewable both as colonists and as themselves fearing colonisation from the Catholic South" (141). No doubt, this is true, but there is a difference between the historical fact of colonization and the fear of it on the part of the former colonizers, as Howe implicitly identifies the northern Unionists. Perhaps his tongue is in his cheek or his fingers are crossed when he makes this statement. In any case, there is little likelihood of such a violent colonizing occupation and dispossession of the northern Unionists. This is just a bogey. In his effort to demonstrate that the conflict in Northern Ireland is not anti-colonial, Howe makes some valid points about international law and even common sense; but he can't disguise his obvious agenda and political desire. Though there are significant differences of interpretation among contemporary Irish cultural theorists and historians, the claim that the struggle in Northern Ireland is "anti-colonial" is an oversimplification of their views. Gerry Adams made that claim long ago, as well as the claim that the Republic is a "neo-colonial state" (Adams 39-40, 105), but that is hardly the consensus among Irish cultural theorists, at least in their published writings.
- Howe equates a belief in the relevance of the history of colonization to contemporary events with a belief that Northern Ireland is still a colony. His political viewpoint comes through most clearly when he attempts to equate the sectarianism of Loyalist violence against Catholics with the sectarianism of Republican violence against Protestants. He writes that "Both sides' paramilitaries have engaged in sectarian killings; equally, both have usually convinced themselves that their choice of targets has had a morally legitimate rationale" (186-87). Howe is implying that the Catholic civil rights movement and the resulting violence against Catholics that led to the Troubles and the escalation of paramilitary violence was primarily driven by religious bias rather than socio-economic and political oppression. According to Howe, Republicanism in the North sublimates "potentially sectarian feelings by directing both rhetoric and armed violence against the state and its personnel rather than (at least overtly) against Protestants as such" (187). The implication is that the war against the British state and its military was just a cover for sectarian brutality. Catholic violence had nothing to do with the oppressive nature of the state of Northern Ireland that led to this crisis or with the British response to the crisis. This is a patently ridiculous scenario. I am not saying that a terrible conflict such as the one in Northern Ireland brought out the best in Northern Irish Catholics; and I have no doubt that there was Catholic sectarian violence. However, one has to distinguish between the motives of a group of people without economic or political power from the motives of a group of people who are aligned with the dominant economic and political power in a region. The basis of the exploitation of Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland was sectarian, though no doubt even in that case it was motivated by political and socio-economic factors more than by religious fervor. The basis of the revolt against that exploitation was socio-economic and political.
- Howe goes to great length to indicate that Northern Ireland and the Unionist community can no longer be identified as a "settler-colony." Who can doubt the truth of this statement? The problem is that Howe thinks the issue of the origins of the Ulster community should have no bearing on the current understanding of that community's legitimacy in Northern Ireland. He summarizes with obvious approval the work of the late Frank Wright for arguing that "from the seventeenth century the Catholic population, rather than being segregated and subordinated within a settler economy, became largely marginalised." This enabled "Ulster employers to practise sectarian exclusivism in recruiting their workforces precisely because there was little if any difference in expectations about wage-rates or conditions of employment between the communities" (210-11). Howe implies that the Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland brought about their own marginalization and discrimination in the workforce by their unwillingness to accept wage-rates significantly lower than their Protestant counterparts. They simply refused to behave like subalterns. Howe sums up the conclusion to be drawn from Wright's work: "Decay of settlement structures . . . did not generate solidarity between descendants of natives and of settlers . . . but rather a paternalistic relationship between dominant classes -- above all landlords -- and natives" (213).
- So in the end, even Howe must conclude that "Unionist ideology, and Northern Ireland itself, cannot be understood without reference to settler-colonial origins, but equally are inexplicable without reference to those original structures' long erosion" (216). Of course, at this point in time the issues in Northern Ireland are no longer simply reducible to economic exploitation or marginality. The issues really center around the redistribution of political power. But one cannot understand the position of either party, Irish Catholics or Protestants, without reference to the history of "settler-colonial origins." Furthermore, Howe's claim that "race" is a meaningless term in this context belies what he himself admits is a northern Protestant "'superiority complex' vis-à-vis Catholics and southerners" that entails assumptions about the "industriousness, independence of spirit, rationality, civic mindedness and so" of the politically dominant Protestants and "Catholic deficiency in these virtues" (208). Elsewhere in this study, Howe dismisses the work of Theodore Allen, which compares "British rule in Ireland [under the Penal Laws] with North American racial slavery" (38). Though Howe insists that Allen cites sources which do not support his claim (though, as usual, Howe offers no evidence to support this criticism), it seems to me that Howe might want to reconsider Allen's theory of the sociogenic origins of racism as a form of social control. It certainly won't explain everything in Irish history, but it is a crucial component in explaining the history that led to the views of northern Protestants about the personal attributes of Irish Catholics as an ethnic group.
- Let me conclude with a disclaimer. I won't pretend that Stephen Howe's argument about Irish cultural studies can be reduced to the nonsense of Humpty Dumpty or that I have shattered it into so many pieces that it will never be put back together again. We're all Humpty Dumptys to the extent that we try not to be what Lacan thought every human subject can appear to be, "the slave of language." We try not to be the pawns of a universal discourse in which one's place "is already inscribed at birth" (Lacan 148) by a proper name that usually entails a national identity. As Seamus Deane implies, a claim to objective historical truth almost always emerges to oppose a discourse that wants to question the foundation of a particular historical viewpoint. I certainly believe that Irish cultural studies can be subjected to a serious critique that may call into question some of its grounding interpretations. Nonetheless, I do insist that Irish cultural theorists and historians are well aware of the decisions they make in reading the past and of the political stakes in writing the history of Ireland. If Stephen Howe had not written his book Ireland and Empire, it would have been necessary for Irish cultural studies to have invented it. It obviously answers to a certain purpose in the struggle to represent contemporary Ireland in a relation to its past that can make possible a different future. The answer, of course, does not lie in erasing divisions that are grounded in historical experience and genuine communal feeling. The answer lies in negotiating the differences and learning how to hear other voices. Intellectual war is better than murder and mayhem, whether they come from paramilitary organizations or the state. There can be no true friendship without opposition, as Blake said, and no reconciliation without the recognition of sundering, as Joyce said. Like it or not, we have all gone through the looking-glass, and either none of us is dreaming or, as Alice says, "we're all part of the same dream" (Carroll 209).
NOTE: Stephen Howe will respond to this article in the next issue of Jouvert (7.3 [Summer 2003]).
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- Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.
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