PRINT December 1993


SEAMUS DEANE IS IN THE FOREFRONT of the effort to bring contemporary critical theory to bear on cultural debates in Ireland. Born in Derry in 1940, he has been responsible for a body of critical writings tracing the various inscriptions of the Enlightenment and modernity on Irish politics and literature. Internationally, he is known for editing the Field Day pamphlet series, which included essays by Fredric Jameson, Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, Richard Carney, and Declan Kibert (the pamphlets by Jameson, Said, and Eagleton were republished as Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature by the University of Minnesota Press in 1990, with an introduction by Deane). He also edited the three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 1991 (distributed in the U.S. by W. W. Norton), an attempt at an anthology that would rework key concepts of identity, tradition, history, and literary canon formation. Though the Field Day books are indebted to postcolonial and feminist theory, they themselves were criticized in Ireland for underrepresenting the writing of women—part of a “hidden Ireland” that is now to form the basis of a fourth volume of the anthology. Deane is also controversial for his insistence that the Northern Irish conflict remains the great unspeakable of Irish culture, a position that has drawn fire from postnationalist critics who object to what they see as the unhealthy intersection of “Derry with Derrida.”

An authority on Edmund Burke, W. B. Yeats, and James Joyce, Deane is himself the author of A Short History of Irish Literature (Notre Dame: at the University Press, 1986), Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880–1980 (Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University Press, 1986), and The French Enlightenment and Revolution in England 1789–1832 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). With Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, Stephen Rea, Tom Paulin, and David Hammond, he was a founder director of the Field Day Theatre Company, in Derry. Deane is an award-winning poet (his Selected Poems was published by Gallery Press, Dublin, in 1988) and his novel Reading in the Dark will appear shortly from Granta-Penguin in the U.K. and Knopf in the U.S.

Luke Gibbons

The racial stereotype, considered “a major discursive strategy” of imperialism, is endlessly in need of confirmations for its classifications, and is ingenious in discovering them. The tremulousness of the relationship between those who are victims and those who are victimizers in this process does not at all modify the fixed, essentialist notions on which the stereotype depends. It is comparatively easy to demonstrate that most systems of racial stereotyping are effective insofar as they can convert the specificity of historical experience into the metaphysics of destiny, making it appear that everything that ever happened was already preinscribed—and will continue to be so.1

There are, of course, many other forms of stereotyping, even within the precinct of the “racial,” that need not be linked with colonial or imperialist requirements at all. The “natural” linkages between northern-European countries (Germany and England) and Romanticism, first popularized by Mme. de Stael and later elaborated in the pre-Modernist debates about cosmopolitanism and nationalism, would be one example—accompanied by their inevitable corollary, the “classicism” of the Mediterranean countries. Even the distinctions between Celt and Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic stereotypes outlined by Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold, and incorporated into the mixture of crowd theory, gender theory, and degeneration theory elaborated by Max Simon Nordau, E. Ray Lankester, Oswald Spengler, and others, have, in their sub-Nietzschean way, sectarian functions within the European societies they describe that may be integral to but are nevertheless distinct from their colonial and imperialist purposes. Although an adequate account of the social and historical realities involved in and even constituted by these discourses would be an intricate task, it might be hazarded, for present purposes, that they all share an essentialist belief: the belief that certain ahistorical conditions or characteristics are both displayed in and producers of a history that, seen under the sign of this species of eternity or of origin, is Fate.

Yet it is also the case that most essentialist figurings of history, race, and gender depend upon making an intersection between time and space, between chronology and territory. This is a feature of all writings that aim to provide a history of an art form, of a literature, of a nation state’s achievement in the arts. Perhaps it is truer of this kind of historical writing than of others that the very subject of the writing—“Art”—is often held to be, in itself, most itself when not hemmed in by chronological frameworks or territorial imperatives of any kind. Even those who would characterize the post-Modern as a kind of art that has the capacity to be both rooted and unrooted do not entirely escape the seductions of the essentialist sirens that are always singing, even within those forms of discourse that pretend to have stifled them. Is it possible to write a history of any form of “Art,” is it possible to locate it territorially, and at the same time to be free of any conception of art that is not at least implicitly essentialist and therefore subversive of the very idea and form of history—that is not in some sense either reactionary or ancestral in its longings, and ultimately impassive toward all forms of exposition or explanation?

It is a crux of feminist theory that essentialism must be both accepted and confronted, canceled, erased. For any representation of woman that has been produced by a phallocentric system is to be denied; yet to say that what woman is has to be (re)constructed is to run the risk of continuing, if only by deferral, the effacement of woman. Luce Irigaray is the exemplary writer in this relation; she is willing to take the risk of “going through” essentialism, retracing the journey as much as possible against the grain of the received pattern while still accepting that pattern as the given, in order ultimately to replace it with something that is not essentialist, univocal, coercive.2

The essentialist moment is analogous to the nativist or local moment in a work of art; the disengagement from that is the “modern” moment; the action of moving from one through the other is post-Modern. The statement is insufficient, but I cannot see by what logic statements of this kind can be avoided, nor by what means the sound of essentialist seduction can be quenched. Even “post-Modern” is an “essentialist” condition, sometimes the more so by the force with which it struggles to free itself from that position. Postcolonial experience and postcolonial theory are deeply marked by some of the difficulties arising from this impasse. Even the notion of a postcolonial condition is susceptible to the reification that duplicates itself so readily within discourses that attempt to theorize forms of oppression and liberation. There is a Condition and there are conditions; there is Woman and there are women; there is the Third World and there are third worlds. To move from one term to the other is very often to disrupt the very principles on which such discourses are predicated.

I have deliberately figured essentialism here in a gendered fashion—as a “siren song”—in order to point up one way in which it can be spoken of while simultaneously enacting the apparent refusal to speak it or be spoken by it. In The Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov provides another figure (or is it an account?): “Columbus’s failure to recognize the diversity of languages permits him, when he confronts a foreign tongue, only two possible, and complementary, forms of behavior: to acknowledge it as a language but to refuse to believe it is different; or to acknowledge its difference but to refuse to admit it is a language.”3 The second option is much more often preferred. Difference can be acknowledged in the most repressive spirit. An essentialist ingredient may reside within the most fastidiously antiessentialist analysis; much postcolonial theorizing reasserts difference as something formerly and coercively denied, but this reassertion is frequently little more than a reinsertion. The “native” position is as essentialist as the colonizing one; it merely wears its essentialist rue with a different difference.

In Ireland or—can it meaningfully be said?—in a country like Ireland, this sometimes obscure, obscuring, and sometimes obscurantist dilemma is slowly reinsinuating itself within many of the debates now being rehearsed under the pressure of much violence and social change, and in the consciousness that they have undergone their first development already—in the half century between 1880 and 1930, when Ireland had the dubious privilege of being the first modern nation to constitute itself as “postcolonial.” It is important that the debate is in its second coming, for its contemporary terms are in important respects conditioned by the use made of them in the earlier period. It is equally important that the earlier period left behind its “monuments,” those of James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, J. M. Synge, Sean O’Casey, and, by a facile incorporation, Samuel Beckett in the aftermath, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and George Moore in the prelude. The chronology of this version is highly contestable, but some consolation can be gained, at any rate for an Irishman, from the assertion that the bogus question of how “Irish” any of these writers is can be restricted to the authors of the prelude and the aftermath, not to the central four.

Much can be said—although not enough of note has been said—about literature in Ireland as the art form that flourished, on the occasions when it did, at the expense of others. Such overdevelopment in one area and underdevelopment in others would seem to indicate an asymmetry that is represented on a wider scale by the belief that Ireland is an odd (but not unique) combination of a third world and a first world country, a combination visible in its literature, in its economy, in its forms of violence (social and political), and in its legislation. It should be said, in conjunction with this, that such asymmetries are frequently found, and are susceptible of historical explanations—the comparative developments of cuisine and fashion, of visual arts, of philosophy and music in various European countries. Of course these are all equally susceptible to essentialist explanations, which very often provide themselves with a historical narrative too.

Still, in the Irish instance, when an “esthetic” movement outlives a “political” movement, when Joyce is internationalized and Padraic Pearse is provincialized, it is not surprising that the various arguments about art as an autonomous or as a social/political action should assume a charge that is all the greater because it is being detonated and recycled a second time. Now the debate, like the country, has become partitioned into those who would ascribe to “art” an essentialism that they would deny to “Irishness” and those who refuse to ascribe essentialism to either. My present point has nothing to do with an adjudication between these roughly sketched positions. It has to do with the whole issue of estheticization to which postcolonial countries are subjected, and to which they subject themselves.

These countries define themselves and are defined by others through their art—most often their literature. The literature is understood to have, as its local root, the particular geography and history of the region that produced it; but, unlike the politics of such regions, the literature is visible internationally. It is both local and cosmopolitan. A South American novel can be understood precisely as that—not as Brazilian, Colombian, Peruvian. “South American” is an esthetic category. So, too, in comparable respects, is “Irish.” The Northern Irish war is invisible to many who have learned to see Northern Irish poetry. But this is as true inside Ireland as it is outside. To combat some fetishized version of Irishness on the political and social level often has, as a consequence, the acceptance of an equally fetishized notion of Art. If the Art is Literature, and if the Irish are agreed to be quite gifted in this area, then there is, inevitably, a resmuggled version of Irishness operating within the economy of the debate.

Literature, art, poetry, the province formerly assigned to the 19th-century colonial version of the Celt, has now become part of a late-20th-century repossession of Irishness by those who would, in all other respects, reject the existence of such an essentialized quality. In effect, the gift for literature becomes homologous with the attraction to violence: both are “Irish” phenomena, the one advanced, first-worldish, the other regressive, third-worldish. The politics of such countries not only become less interesting than their literature, they are effectively erased by it. The inflation of the esthetic always leaves a political deficit. The recruitment of postcolonial literature to post-Modernity dooms the politics of postcolonial societies to pre-Modernity.

The separations suggested here are similar to those we would find between the vocabularies of disciplines like economics and esthetics, on one level, and between phallocentric and feminist discourse on another. On the one hand there are the languages of taste, refinement, beauty, autonomy, authenticity, etc.; on the other there are the languages of rationality, judgment, calculation, scientific judgment. I exaggerate the separation for the purpose of identifying it. Postcolonial theory conspires at times with the very essentialisms that it wishes to rebuke; it permits the reintroduction of the “feminized” construct that it took so much trouble to expel, and it is persuaded to do so in the name of “Art.” In a similar but also different way, feminism confronts this issue, wishing to assert for itself a radical independence that is, over and again, rearticulated in the residually essentialist discourse it wishes to erase. Perhaps Irigaray’s way of going through it in order to come out the other side, or on the side of the Other, is the only recourse. A stereotype should not perhaps be demolished until it has been reinhabited.

Seamus Deane


1. See Homi K. Bhabha, “The Other Question . . .” Screen 24 no. 6, November–December 1983, p. 18.

2. See Margaret Whitford, Luce Irigaray, Philosophy in the Feminine, London and New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 70–71.

3. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America, New York: Harper & Row, 1981, p. 30.