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Dialogue Without the Other?

Dialogue Without the Other?

A Reply to Francis Mulhern
Luke Gibbons
Condemning national values has a different meaning
depending on whether one lives in a little country (one’s
own) in the orbit ofanother, larger one, or whether one lives
abroad, in a third country, where one is – where one
believes oneself to be – free from any threat from a more
powerful neighbour. Paris. is undoubtedly a propitious
place for a euphoric renunciation of nationalist values;
Sofia much less so.

Tzvetan Todorov
Anthologies are frequently subject to the paradox of realism
which, according to Umberto Eco, vitiates so many life-like
waxworks in American museums: the more one tries to
include, the easier it is to notice what is left out. The initial
reviews of The Field Day Anthology ofIrish Writing (Faber
and Faber, 1991) in the press and popular periodicals were
cast very much in this mould, with the editors of the various
sections being taken to task for acts of omission and
exclusion, particularly where women writers were concerned
(though as Siobhan Kilfeatherpointed out in her acute early
review, it contains by far the most comprehensive selection
of Irish women writers to date). 1
In recent discussions (now that reviewers have had some
time to digest the 4,000 pages of the anthology), the focus
has shifted not so much to what is excluded as to what is
actuall y placed before the reader. 2 Francis Mulhern’ s review
article in Radical Philosophy (65) belongs to this trend, and
is welcome insofar as it shifts the debate onto a new critical
plane, examining the principles of selection and the mUltiple
organizing narratives which inform and ‘cross-cut’ the
anthology. Not least of the merits ofMulhern’s approach is
his emphasis on the diversity and range of the project,
countering the simplistic view of the anthology as a literary
panopticon, in which nothing escaped the all-seeing eye of
its general editor, Seamus Deane (or, for that matter, any
one of the other twenty-three editors who contributed
sections): ‘The effect,’ Mulhern writes, ‘is of an irreducibly
plural history, polyphonic and differential, in which voices
are echoed or answered by other voices, are heard again, and
differently …. Old English, Anglo-Irish and Ulster Protestant
traditions participate on equal terms with Gaelic Ireland and
its rivalrous posterity. ‘3

28

However, as Dr 10hnson remarked, it is unlike the Irish
to speak well of one another, and already in this expression
of praise it is possible to detect the sting in the tail. While all
voices are equal, one, it would seem, is less euphonious than
others – ‘Gaelic Ireland and its rivalrous posterity’. The
other three (representing historically, let it be noted, different
intensities of conquest) are evidently bearers of sweetness
and light: but the natives alone are fractious and unruly. It
is to be expected, then, that when Mulhern comes to the
sections I edited in the anthology, in which I try to complicate
this picture of what it means to be on the receiving end of
colonialism, his tone becomes less magnanimous. Whereas
it is usual in debates on post-colonial writing to refer to
subjugated or ‘subaltern’ cultures in relation to, say, the
experience of India or Algeria, Mulhern will have none of
this where Ireland is concerned: for native cuiture over the
centuries, he suggests, read ‘dominant local tradition’ (26).

I would like to ask: dominant over whom? Over the Protestant
Ascendancy? Over the might of the British empire? We are
getting very close here to the spoof on Irish revisionist
history in a Dublin periodical some years ago, which
suggested that it was the Landlord class who suffered
excruciatingly during the Great Famine, while the peasants
were having a field day, so to speak, at their expense.

Divested of its more rhetorical asides, Mulhern’s main
objection to my sections in the anthology on twentiethcentury cultural debates in Ireland would seem to be that
they belie the traditionalist view of Irish nationalism as
conservative, rural, priest-ridden, misogynist – the unholy
trinity of land, nationalism and religion. The merest
suggestion that ‘nationalism is plural’ is dismissed as ‘grossly
tendentious’ and ‘phantasmagoria’. Yet in his anxiety to
place Irish nationalism in the dock, Mulhern is inconsistent
even in terms of his own argument. Having first
complimented the anthology for being ‘polyphonic and
differential’ , he then proceeds to expose in my sections ‘the
motivating conviction ofthe anthology’ (27). This turns out
to be a heterogeneous and open-ended concept of lrishness
which I trace in the neglected writings of, among others, the
1916 leader Thomas MacDonagh, and which distances
national identity from any purifying or monocular vision.

One would have thought that this, as a ‘motivating

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

conviction’, would accord with the ‘irreducibly plural
history’ which Mulhern welcomes in the anthology. But not
so. With an unqualified generalisation (derived, perhaps,
from the ‘universalist’ standpoint which he appears to
endorse), he declares that not just Irish nationalism, but all
nationalism, is characterised by a closed, unrelieved
homogeneity: ‘the rhetoric of nationality insists on closure,
on the ultimate sublimation of class and gender antagonisms
in the sameness of national ‘difference’. There is no room,
he concludes, for any kind of otherness in ‘this strictlyplotted cultural narrative’ (26).

By this alone, we can see Mulhern’s indifference to any
form of cultural specificity. If there is a recurrent motif in
discussions of narrative forms in Irish culture, it is that
‘closure’ and ‘strict emplotment’ are, to say the least, rare
achievements indeed. A rage for order, and a sense of an
ending, are hardly pre-eminent among Irish contributions to
the cultural canon. In constructing his ‘ideal type’ of
nationalism, it may be that Mulhern is thinking of the
orderly procession of events that keeps in place the cherished
continuity of English nationalism. If so, he could reflect on
the kind of alarmist prefaces that were frequently attached
to general histories of Ireland designed for Victorian readers
brought up on the comforting linear narratives of the Whig
interpretation of history:

The history of Ireland is marked by peculiarities
which do not affect that of any other history. It
comprises the remotest extremes of the social state;
and sets at nought the ordinary laws of social transition
and progress, during the long intervals between them.

Operated on by a succession of external shocks, the
internal advances, which form some part of all other
history, have been wanting; and her broken and
interrupted career, presents a dream-like succession
of capricious and seemingly unconnected changes,
without order or progress. 4
This, written in the shadow of the catastrophe of the Famine,
hardly bears witness to the conditions of a strictly emplotted
national narrative. Such enclosure as existed in this period
in Ireland took the form of land clearances rather than its
more orderly narrative equivalent.

The question of narrative voices is central to Mulhern’ s
critique. Having, as we have seen, initially commended the
anthology for its array of ‘polyphonic’ voices, he then
changes his mind and discovers that underneath this cultural
colloquy, one voice, that of monological nationalism, has
been subtly orchestrating the exchanges all along. Espousing
any form of national identity, on this reasoning, would seem
to be monological and thus inimical to entering into cultural
dialogue, as if polyphonic discourse and openness towards
the other somehow requires the obliteration of one’s own
identity. This may be one understanding of internationalism
and universalism, but to me it seems like an alibi for erasing
all cultural difference. 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. To the
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

extent that Irish nationalism, in the name of faith and
fatherland, foreclosed self-criticism and pursued a stultifying
homogeneity, it is indeed a monologic discourse. 5 Mulhern’ s
case against me rests on the imputation that I subscribe to
such a fundamentalist (,self-evident truths’ (27)) and
ahistorical (‘perennially valid’ (27)) concept of identity, but
this is an inexplicable misreading of my arguments. My
contribution to the anthology (however ‘maverick’) was
precisely to afford another set of possibilities, tracing a
dissident line of nationalist thinkers at the turn of the
century which included figures as diverse as George
Sigerson, Frederick Ryan, Thomas MacDonagh, Arthur
Clery, Thomas Kettle, lames Connolly, and Aohd De
Blacam. Many of these embraced both socialism and
feminism, and all of them, in different ways, trenchantly
eschewed racist, sectarian or, indeed, any ‘monologic’

forms of identity. Given that these writers and activists
(with the obvious exception ofConnolly) have been virtually
written out of history , and ignored in the secondary literature,
I would have thought that bringing these ‘dialogic’ voices
back into a debate noted for shrillness and intolerance
would have been welcomed. But not so. Mulhern prefers the
old rogue’s gallery, full of zealots, revanchists and other
hearts with one purpose alone. For all his critique of
sameness, in the end he wants more of the same.

It is not surprising, in this connection, that the shrillness
appears in his own voice in proportion as he misrepresents
my arguments. ‘Gibbons,’ he writes, ‘cannot venture the
absurd claim that they [i.e. socialism and feminism] are
merely radical variations on patrician liberalism.’ This
indeed would be an absurd claim, but the difficulty is that,
again, I make the opposite argument. The position I advance
in the anthology is that it is not always necessary to look to
liberalism alone 6 to release the progressive potential of
socialism and feminism in Ireland, but that many radical
possibilities were also latent within certain innovatory
strands of nationalism and the anti-imperialist movement,
which may have been marginalised for that very reason. By
virtue of his essentialist categories, this is impossible for
Mulhern, since nationalism is a priori incompatible with
any form of diversity or otherness. ‘Socialism must be
domesticated and feminism silenced outright’ (26) by
nationalism, he proclaims (note the disparaging use of
‘domestication’ – I would imagine that many socialists
would consider its domestication long overdue!). The
intricate and variegatd network of alliances and differences
between nationalists, feminists and socialists in Ireland at
the turn of the century (which still awaits detailed research)
is simply ignored.

Instead of excluding one history of resistance tout court,
I would prefer the approach, adopted by critics such as Cora
Kaplan,7 which avoids reifying class, gender, race and, I
would add, nationality, as pure, mutually exclusive
abstractions, but rather considers them as ‘cross-cutting’

political projects (to use Mulhern’s own term), splicing
each other in determinate historical situations. Of course,
this does not mean that they are always equally balanced,
and some sites of struggle may be more strategically placed
29

at stress-points in society than others. In a momentary lapse,
Mulhern concedes that in certain conjunctures even
nationalism may come to the fore: ‘An unresolved national
question encourages nation-centred cultural tendencies’

(the unresolved national question being precisely why
national narratives in Ireland lack closure, contrary to his
earlier pronouncements). But in case we run away with the
idea that he has softened his line, he adds quickly: ‘yet [a]
principled, democratic response towards the one [an
unresolved national question] does not entail indulgence
towards the other: certainly not in the south, where the
valorization of Irishness as the main collective identity is
more often than not repressive’ (27).

This repression he lays primarily at the door of the
Catholic Church, or rather Catholic nationalism, but this
conveniently overlooks the key role of British rule in both
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in securing the
hegemony of the Catholic Church. So far from acting as the
ideological arm of separatist movements, the Catholic
‘devotional revolution’ sought to suppress them (hence its
immense appeal for, and support from, the colonial
administration).8 When it was apparent that nationalism
was gaining the upper hand, the Catholic Church, never one
to miss backing a winner, shifted its allegiance, thus laying
the basis for the narrow-gauge nationalism which became
the orthodoxy of the new partitionist state. Under conditions
of partition – ‘the single greatest English contribution to the
topography of the modern world’, as Christopher Hitchens
has described it – sectarian politicians both north and south
were able to build their own versions of confessional states,
demonising each other in the process. As Hitchens points
out, the big losers in all of this, whether
in Ireland, in India, in Cyprus, and in Palestine were
precisely those secular and tolerant forces, in the
shape of editors, trade unionists, public officials, and
intellectuals, upon whom real and lasting peace treaties
actually depend. 9
These are the silenced voices which I tried to recover in my
sections of the anthology, but which evidently do not fit in
with the manifest destiny of Mulhern’s theocratic
nationalism.

It is striking that, in order to discredit by re-negotiation
of Irish culture from this perspective, Mulhern finds it
necessary to attribute my excesses to ‘post-structuralism’

and ‘mid-Atlantic’ identity politics (which would seem to
be somewhat at odds with his conviction that I am also
fretting in the shadow of traditional nationalism). I would
like to think that Marxist critical theory is capable of
’emplotting’ its position in these narratives of resistance,
and particularly that it does not derogate all questions of
cultural identity to post- (or pre-) Marxist intellectual
currents. It may indeed be necessary to go beyond existing
paradigms of nationalism, but only after having absorbed
their insistence on difference, and the specificity of historical
time and cultural space. Hence the importance of Paul
Willemen’s argument that ‘discourses of nationalism and
those addressing national specificity are not identical’.1O
30

Mulhern, however, does not accept this distinction: as he
sees it, Irish nationalism can only wither away with the
‘obsolescence of the “Irish nation'” (28) itself. From this it
would seem that his difficulty is not just with nationalism,
but with ‘Irishness’ and, indeed, with the very existence of
Ireland as a nation. If this is the logical outcome of the
‘shared appeal [by Marxism] to some version of
“internationalist” or “humanist” or “Enlightenment” values,
(26) which he invokes, then it is no wonder that Marxism is
in such serious trouble worldwide.

The Irish socialists James Connolly and Fredrick Ryan
(interestingly, Mulhern does not mention the truly
internationalist but implacably anti-imperialist Ryan at all,
though both myself and Seamus Deane include extensive
contributions by him) are among the first Marxists to fully
engage with these questions, and deserve better than to be
‘silenced outright’ as mere sycophants of the Second
International. Connolly indeed adopted a materialist
approach to history, as Mulhern avers, but in a complex
manner that prefigures Raymond Williams’ s attempts to
‘de-etherealise’ culture, insisting on its effective materiality
as a social agency. Connolly’ s thinking on such issues owed
less to the mechanistic socialism of the Second International
than to far-reaching debates on the scientific status of
political economy in nineteenth-century Ireland, which
questioned the dogma that economic laws followed ‘iron
laws of necessity’, resembling nature rather than history. I I
Connolly’s views on ‘Celtic communism’ , and his insistence
on discussing the intractable Land Question not just in
formal economic terms but also in the specific historical
context of the Brehon Laws, are of interest because they
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. For this reason,
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. Such
an appalling vista fills Mulhern with dismay. ‘It is hard to
say where, in all of this,’ he laments, ‘opportunism sinks
into sincere confusion: Marxist “theory” must yield to Irish
“history'” . Yet in the last instance, Mulhern himself has to
accept that even Marxist theory may have occasionally to
yield to historical contingency. A concern with national
identity, he reluctantly concedes, may be ‘in Irish conditions
… if not perennially valid, at least historically pertinent’

(27). This, admittedly something of an understatement, is
not too far removed from the ‘maverick’ position which I
espouse in the Anthology. At times it is indeed hard to say
where opportunism sinks into sincere confusion.

Nor does it follow, when Marxist theory takes stock of
actual history, Irish or otherwise, that everything native,
indigenous, or even traditional is automatically an obstacle
on the path of progress – a derailing of socialism onto the
closed circuit of nationalism. In a statement which echoes
Marx’s late writings on Russian village communes, Connolly
wrote that those social determinists who espouse rigid
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

linear conceptions of development
will regard the Irish adherence to the clan ownership
at such a comparati vely recent date as the seventeenth
century as an evidence of retarded economical
development and therefore a real hindrance to
progress. But the sympathetic student of history , who
believes in the possibility of. a people by political
intuition anticipating the lessons afterwards revealed
to them in the sad school of experience, will not be
indisposed to join with the Irish patriot in his lavish
expressions of admiration for the sagacity of his
Celtic forefathers, who foreshadowed in the
democratic organisation of the Irish clan the more
perfect organisation of the free society of the future. 12
Connolly wisely points out that only the sympathetic student
of history will be prepared to acknowledge forms of social
advancement beyond the limited horizons of his or her own
intellectual community, however enlightened.

Unfortunately, such sympathy is not evident in Francis
Mulhern’s response to the disparate narratives at work in a
culture still trying to come to terms with centuries of
colonial domination. If there is any closure or ‘strictlyplotted narrative’ evident in all of this, it would seem to
govern his understanding of socialism. On this reckoning,
it is not nationalism but Marxism which has profound
difficulties with otherness.

Notes
1

Siobhan Kilfeather, ‘The Whole Bustle’, London Review of
Books, 9 January 1992.

2

See, for example, the critical appraisals by Tom Dunne, ‘New
Histories: Beyond “Revisionism”‘, and Kevin Barry, ‘Anthology as History: The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing’, in
The Irish Review, No. 12, Spring/Summer 1992.

Francis Mulhern, ‘A Nation, Yet Again: The Field Day Anthology’, Radical Philosophy 65, Autumn 1993, pp. 23-4, 25. (The
page numbers of further references will be cited in brackets in
the text.)

3

4

5

6

James Wills, D.D. and Freeman Wills, M.A., The Irish Nation:

its History and its Biography (London, 1876), Vol. 1, p. 3. I
pursue this argument in ‘Montage, Modernism and the City’,
The Irish Review, No. 10, Spring 1991, and in ‘Race against
Time: Racial Discourse and Irish History’, The Oxford Literary
Review, Vol. 13, Nos. 1-2, 1991.

As David Lloyd has argued, this monologic strand in nineteenthcentury Irish nationalism took its bearings from its ruling English model, and, as such, was part of an integrative project within
an imperial frame, for all its rhetoric to the contrary: ‘Paradoxically, in adopting such a model of cultural identification … Irish
nationalists reproduced in their very opposition to the Empire a
narrative of universal development which is fundamental to the
development of imperialism’ (David Lloyd, ‘Writing in the Shit:

Beckett, Nationalism and the Colonial Subject’ in his Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (Dublin, 1992). I include a shorter version of this article in the section
which I edited in Vol. 3 of the Anthology, ‘Challenging the
Canon: Revisionism and Cultural Criticism’. For a more extended discussion, see also David Lloyd, Nationalism and
Minor Literature: lames Clarence Mangan and the Emergence
of Irish Cultural Nationalism (Berkeley, 1987), esp. Introduction and Ch. 2.

7

8

9
10

11

12

‘patrician liberalism’ (of which I profess to know nothing) but
the unreconstructed ‘bourgeois humanist’ variety, based on
notions of the ‘autonomous individual’ -as one of its exponents,
whom I quote in the anthology, puts it. Throughout his review,
Mulhern repeatedly takes me to task for utterances and opinions
which I cite from others. The fusion of ‘Derry with Derrida’

which he castigates is not my phrase, but, as I indicate, is ofEdna
Longley’s making; likewise, the opinion that modernisation in
its liberal variant has failed to deliver substantial social change
in Ireland is not just a nationalist fantasy, but is the view of Conor
Cruise O’Brien (whom I quote to this effect). Mulhern states
correctly that ‘a liberal current generally termed “revisionist”
has been salient in Irish culture and politics over the past twentyfive years’ (26), but my concern is simply to question that it has
a monopoly on progress. Many of the secular and egalitarian
influences that have been attributed to liberalism have in fact
derived from ‘unhealthy intersections’ (in Cruise O’Brien’s
phrase) between the left, the women’s movement, and radical
strands within nationalism and republicanism. Conversely, in
areas such as civil liberties and political censorship, the silence
of the liberal intelligentsia (with some notable exceptions such
as Mary Robinson) has been deplorable.

Writing of the ‘determinants’ of character in fiction, Caplan
argues that ‘class, race and gender are bound together in the
historical development and definition of subjectivity – no abstract, unsocialised characters appear in any piece of fiction
anymorethan they do in mental life … but [are] “always, already,
ordered and broken up through other social and cultural terms”‘.

Cora Kaplan, ”’Like a Housemaid’s Fancies”, The Representation of Working-Class Women in Nineteenth-century Writing’,
in Susan Sheridan, ed., Grafts: Feminist Cultural Criticism
(London, 1988), p. 56. The quotation within the statement is
from Kaplan’s ‘Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism’, in Sea Changes: Essays on
Culture and Feminism (London, 1986).

For the Catholic Church’s rapprochement with the colonial
administration in the eighteenth century, and its crucial support
in cementing the Act of Union in 1800, see TomĀ· Bartlett, The
Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation: The Catholic Question 16901830 (Dublin, 1992). For the Catholic Church’s fond embrace of
Victorian values in the nineteenth century, see Tom Inglis, The
Moral Monopoly: The Catholic Church in Modern Irish Society
(Dublin, 1987). Of course, both Catholic and nationalist mythology would subsequently have it that the Church was always
‘agin’ the government – a myth which has unfortunately also
endeared itself to some of the sternest opponents of ‘Catholic
nationalism’ .

Christopher Hitchens, ‘Still deaf to the Empire’s parting shots’,
The Guardian, 7 August 1993.

Paul Willemen, ‘The National’, paper delivered at the symposium on ‘National Cinema’ at the International Communication
Association Annual Conference, Dublin, 1990. I am grateful to
Paul Willemen for providing me with a copy of this paper.

See, for example, the formulation in T. Cliff Leslie’s critical
essay on ‘The Political Economy of Adam Smith’ (1870):

‘Political Economy is not a body of natural laws in the true sense,
or of universal and immutable truths, but an assemblage of
speCUlations and doctrines which are the result of a particular
history … so far from being of no country, and unchangeable
from age to age, it has varied much in different ages and
countries, and even with different expositors in the same age and
country’ (Essays in Political and Moral Philosophy, Dublin,
1879, p. 149). For a valuable discussion of nineteenth-century
debates on political economy in Ireland, see Thomas A. Boylan
and Timothy P. Foley, Political Economy and Colonial Ireland
(London, 1992).

James Connolly, ‘Erin’s Hope’ (1897), in Owen Dudley Edwards
and Bernard Ransom, eds, lames Connolly – Selected Political
Writings (London, 1973), pp. 173-174.

I make it clear that the liberalism which I have in mind is not

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

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