Thursday, 13 May 2010


In the course of several ground-breaking books, including Nationalism and Minor Literature (1987) Anomalous States (1993) and Ireland after History (1999) David Lloyd has refined his postcolonial reading of Irish history, literature and culture to the extent that his new work, Irish Times, displays a remarkable consistency of focus and intent. The six chapters of this book are linked through their attention to the two major questions that have now dominate his work.

The first of these is the issue of the precise nature of the relationship between local cultures and the apparatus of colonial modernity. More specifically, Lloyd has set himself the task of tracing the ways in which recognizably local cultures persist despite the massive transformations visited upon them. His second preoccupation is with the formation of the subject, and how alternative modes of subjectivity emerge in the long shadows of colonialism and institutional nationalism. Both questions are clearly central to postcolonial theory, history and literary studies, and it is not the least of Lloyd’s achievements that he uses the specific area of Irish Studies to throw them into new and stark relief. In doing so, he is rightly concerned to note the role that notions of temporality play in the face-off between the local and the colonial, and this accounts for the title of the book, although there is also a droll nod in the direction of liberal Ireland’s Newspaper of Record.

Lloyd accepts the idea that the violent and corrosive structures of colonial modernity demand that local cultures necessarily adapt, and that there can therefore never be any possibility of the retrieval of some kind of original nativist plenitude. Like Fanon he associates such nostalgia with modernity itself, in the form of a bourgeois nationalism that seeks to invent its own amenable traditions. Instead he sees these cultures survive as trace and dispersal, hidden in the interstices of the state’s disciplinary structures. Yet Lloyd has also stated his rejection of Fanon’s scepticism towards the very possibility of a history of this ‘occult zone’, and has ever since been forging the tools to write it. As a result Irish Times progresses by setting up a series of feints and sallies across a difficult terrain, setting out the ways in which subaltern material comes to light while avoiding the kind of linear, developmental history which Lloyd sees as beholden to state ideology. It is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking, and these essays are continually negotiating the point where continuities of resistance threaten to turn into orthodox narratives.

To take one major example, the traces of the system known as clachan or rundale – what Lloyd calls ‘an older Gaelic system of communal landholding’ – are prominent in the book, appearing in almost every chapter. Despite the many points at which Lloyd asserts the impossibility of the retrieval of pre-colonial cultures, and his acceptance that rundale was a reaction to colonial clearance, there is a clear implication that the spatial aspects of this practice provide a continuity with much older forms of life. The rundale system, composed of widely spread strips of land, and the accompanying clachan settlements, with their elision of public and private space are seen as preserving not (as others might argue) creating, forms of sociability at odds with modernity’s individualism and strict division of labour. There are times in the book when this desire to assert an unbroken tradition of communal forms in the face of their constant transformation seems more an article of faith than an empirical fact.

When addressing his second major concern, the question of the subject, Lloyd makes explicit the link between the unquiet ghosts of occluded histories and possible alternative models of individuation. Extending his previous work on Schiller he argues that the formation of the subject of modernity is predicated upon the positing of a formal potentiality from which a self emerges through a process of prohibition. There is a clear analogy here with the psychoanalytical model, where the inchoate desires of the infant are regulated and located through the intervention of paternal authority. Crucially, however, Lloyd makes the jump from the psyche to the social when he argues that the sense of loss that this entails is compensated for through identification not only with the Name-of-the-Father, but also with the state or its (aesthetic) substitute. Lloyd suggests that the kind of state-sponsored events that took place in Ireland in the mid-1990s, commemorating the Famine, were a ‘therapeutic’ address to the past performing precisely this kind of compensation. By sponsoring a public mourning, such events enabled the Irish to ‘lose our loss in order to become good subjects’: to let go of an unhealthy preoccupation with the past and get on with being a successful modern polity. In this way the occlusion of subaltern histories contributes to the formation of docile subjects.

By contrast Lloyd implies that the refusal to give up on loss can produce alternative modes of subjectivity to the state-identified, atomized individual. The crux of his argument concerns the conjoined notions of potentiality and temporality. Lloyd equates the abstract potential (or in Freudian terms the infant’s polymorphous perversity) which is sacrificed as a consequence of subjectification with a kind historical virtuality he sees present at every historical moment. This key idea, familiar from Walter Benjamin, suggests that although every event erases innumerable alternative pathways into the future, a fidelity can still be maintained to the possibility of those pathways. Thus the subject, by attending to the traces of past, refusing to cede his or her loss and the lost potential which shadows it, is able to preserve the hope of ‘an alternative track of human unfolding’ that is outside the normative forms of identification with Father, State, Capital or Telos. 

In a strategy typical of the book, Lloyd reworks this process from a different angle in Chapter Three, ‘The Indigent Sublime’. Here a subjectivity which refuses identification is again considered, although this time the fascination is not with the ghosts of the past, but with the spectres of Famine victims as they appeared to contemporary onlookers. Lloyd argues that Victorian travellers experienced the scenes of Irish starvation as instances of ‘the unrepresentable in representation’. Yet the debt to Lyotard in this last phrase is immediately qualified when Lloyd argues that this is not a Kantian sublime. Rather than an aesthetic experience which serves to reinforce a universal subject, the relation to the famished other is experienced as an invasion of the self by scenes of human life at its most nakedly corporeal, unadorned by the social-symbolic trappings of everyday existence. It is to Burke that Lloyd turns to grasp this process, arguing that such encounters inspire a Gothic register of ‘vertigo, panic, hallucination’, again exposing the limits of the transcendental subject of modernity.

Lloyd’s recourse to a Burkean sublimity, and his accompanying insistence on the impact of famine scenes is worth noting in the light of his many references to another Gothic image, that of the ruin. Lloyd associates the ruin with myth, arguing that it ‘is that part of a past that lives on to find its place and meaning in a relation with the present, as myth is that element of the meanings of the past that find significance still in the present’. Yet his equation between the material persistence of the ruin and that of meaning, whether in the guise of myth, or as what the book refers to more commonly as popular memory, is somewhat disingenuous. While the ruin exhibits an undeniable material continuity, perduring into the present as a tangible form, meaning persists in a considerably more volatile way. This elision is symptomatic of a tendency to conflate two aspects of the past’s communication with the present. While Lloyd is able to pursue the material forms of non-modern practices up to the end of Nineteenth century, their subsequent survival is tracked through oral histories, Joyce’s modernism or James Connolly’s political writings. Thus at some historical point – undoubtedly the Famine – a shift from the actual to the virtual is implied as the pre-eminent way in which the ‘non-modern’, as Lloyd terms it, survives. If this is accepted then there is clearly a considerable distinction to be made between the lived import of such forms of life for their participants and the ways in which the same forms register later through memory, artistic practice or indeed postcolonial scholarship.

‘Throughotherness’ is the colloquial Irish term Lloyd elects to use to describe the mentalit├ęs corresponding to rundale’s spatial practices. It is also a good term to describe the intricate structure of this rich and rewarding collection, the way it operates through allusion and implication, each of the essays playfully echoing and counterpointing its neighbours, subtly redefining and nuancing key concepts and terms. In this, in its invention, its generosity and solidarity with others, in its stubbornness and implacable contrariness, Irish Times itself channels the spirit of the recalcitrant cultures it so movingly evokes.