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Postcolonial melancholy

Postcolonial melancholy
A reply to Luke Gibbons
Francis Mulhern
Luke Gibbons (RP67) certainly has a way with words,
especially those of others; his representation of my views
(RP65) is something less than fastidious. l However, there
is little value in dwelling much on this; an appropriately
detailed self-defence would consist mainly of
requotation. Interested readers may compare our texts
for themselves.

The substance of Gibbons’s reply gives me little
reason for self-reproach. I stand by my assessment of
The Field Day Anthology and the controversy it aroused,
regretting only several unguarded phrasings that have
been exploited for polemical effect. 2 However, in
countering my analysis, Gibbons invokes more general
terms of debate – Marxism, nationalism, the postcolonial.

I propose to follow him in this, believing that his article
furnishes de facto evidence supporting my reading of his
positions, and confirms quite fundamental differences
between us. While resolution of these differences seems
unlikely, an attempt to clarify them may be useful.

The first issue is theoretical-methodological,
concerning the meanings of specificity as a norm of
cultural analysis. The second is one of socialist political
theory: the relationship between national rights and
nationalism. I then pass to some closing remarks on
political actualities.

The meanings of ‘specificity’

Gibbons charges me with ‘indifference to any form of
cultural specificity’ (29); apparently I cannot accept that,
in Paul Willemen’ swords, ‘discourses of nationalism
and those addressing national specificity are not
identical’ (30). Yet he seeks to rebut my claim concerning
the monological tendency of nationalist discourse by
appealing to evidence of non-closure in unspecified ‘Irish
contributions to the cultural canon’ – that is, in texts that
are in some sense ‘national’ but not necessarily
nationalist at all. My ‘difficulty’, Gibbons conjectures
(in a needless personal innuendo) seems to be ‘not just
with nationalism, but with “Irishness” and, indeed, with
the very existence of Ireland as a nation'(30). This


R a die a I P h iI 0 sop h y

72 (J u I Y / A u 9 u S t

19 9 5)

perceived difficulty, it appears to me, is the shadow cast
by his own difficulty, which consists in an inability to
think of Ireland except in the terms of nationality, or of
nationality in other than the special terms of nationalism.

‘It may indeed be necessary,’ Gibbons concedes, ‘to go
beyond the paradigms of nationalism, but only after
having absorbed their insistence on difference, and the
specificity of historical time and cultural space'(30). In
other words, such paradigms are, at least for now, the
indispensable conditions of access to the concrete reality
of Ireland.

The bad alternative, Gibbons maintains, has been the
kind of positivist developmental scheme sponsored first
by bourgeois political economy and, in a Marxist
derivation, by the Second International, with its
naturalistic laws and iron necessities of ‘progress’ . Sllch .

schemes are false: ‘there is no universal template for
modernization or, for that matter socialism’ , which ‘must
engage dialogically with the precise cultural, historical
and … national conjunctures in which they find
themselves.’ Further, ‘economic necessity does not
operate in the same way in the undeveloped periphery
(particularly under colonialism) as it does in the
metropolitan heartlands’; as lames Connolly perceived,
it is subject to processes of ‘cultural mediation’ that
produce distinctive outcomes, or specificities.

It is of course true that there is no ‘universal template’

of development. However, Gibbons’s arguments against
this notion are fatally weak, and not at all a compelling
illustration of the procedural specificity he insists upon.

The binary opposition of modernizing economic thrust,
which is putatively general or standardizing in character,
and cultural mediation, which is particular (,native’,
‘indigenous’, ‘traditional’), in fact replicates the
conceptual structure it purports to criticize, differing only
in reversing its distribution of values. The attempt to win
a cognitive advance from this theoretical stasis, to specify
an ‘actual history’, leads to dualism and logical
regression: ‘economic necessity’ works differently in
metropolitan and peripheral zones, and this is so,

Gibbons seems to say, because these differ in their
respective coefficients of ‘cultural mediation’. Why this
difference should obtain we are not told, but it is a fair
guess that an attempted explanation would call upon a
deeper contrast, and that in turn upon a still more
fundamental one, and so on … I do not believe that
Gibbons actually entertains this logic, whose terminus is
mysticism, but it haunts his discourse none the less. What
he illustrates here is a kind of narrative that has probably
been told in every country that has borne the shocks of
capitalist transformation, whether through internal
development and free association across borders, or in
the far worse conditions of colonial subjection. To
inquire forensically into them is to mistake their genre:

they are, as Marx wrote, the spontaneous counterdiscourse of capitalism itself, a protest rather than an
analysis. 3
Particularity is central to the feeling of these
narratives, because the damage and loss they record is
the work of a mode of production whose innovative
social norm is indifference – the ideal in-difference of
commodity and contract. And it is this, I believe, that
Gibbons mistakenly offers as illustrating the idea of
historical specificity. The principle of specificity, as I
understand it, calls for the analytic appropriation of ‘the
concrete’ in the sense of ‘the concentration of many
determinations’ (Marx again),4 ‘abstractions’ that really
exist but only in specific configurations, which are
always and everywhere economic and political and
cultural. It is not that ‘economic necessity’ (a debatable
phrase) ‘operates’ differently, but that it is differently
figured, with correspondingly distinct effects. Thus (to
take an outstanding instance of contemporary Marxist
cultural analysis) Roberto Schwarz discovers the
specificity of modern Brazil not in the resultant of
opposed ‘traditional’ and ‘modernizing’ forces, but in
the formative paradox of its social order – a slave-owning
latifundist agriculture structurally integrated into the
‘liberal’ world export market. s Cora Kaplan’s remarks
on the necessary interdetermination of class, race and
gender in social sUbjectivities, which Gibbons cites
approvingly (29, 31), parallel this kind of understanding.

A concrete analysis of Irish culture in this sense would
try to specify the place and functioning of ideas of ‘the
nation’ within it; but this objective becomes unattainable
if it is assumed in advance that ‘the nation’, however
defined, enjoys a quasi-natural pre-eminence among the
collective subjectivities of Irish people, if the idea of
nationality is pre-constructed according to nationalist
canons. I do accept Willemen’ s distinction – which, after
all, matches a basic assumption in what I wrote – and
return it to Luke Gibbons for his further consideration. 6

Nationalism and national rights
‘An unresolved national question,’ I wrote, ‘encourages
nation-centred cultural tendencies’; however, ‘principled,
democratic response towards the one does not entail
indulgence towards the other’, and ‘certainly not in the
south, where the valorization of Irishness as the main
collective identity is more often than not repressive .. .’ ,7
Gibbons quotes these words without specific, substantive
comment; presumably they are self-evidently wrongheaded, the defensive rationalization of someone for
whom ‘the very existence of Ireland as a nation’ is
seemingly a ‘difficulty’. Let me offer a political
clarification, part theoretical and part historical.

The distinction made here is Lenin’s. Like much else
in his thinking it is unseasonable yet unsurpassed.

Nations have a right to self-determination, Lenin
maintained, which may be exercised either in a separate
state or in free association with other national
populations in a larger sovereign entity.8 Socialists must
uphold this right, even where they see fit to argue against
specific implementations of it. However, the principle at
stake here is not itself intrinsically nationalist in kind;
national demands are legitimate in so far as they bear
upon the democratic right of self-determination but not
otherwise; nationalism as such – the privileging of
national differences – is a divisive mystification born out
of national oppression, which should be ended so that
nationalism itself can be overcome. The criterion of selfdetermination is political in a strict sense: it fulfils itself
in the attainment of territorial sovereignty (separate or
merged), and is not gainsaid by the persistence of other
oppressions and inequalities within or between states. It
does not presuppose economic self-sufficiency, let alone
autarky (by that measure hardly any contemporary
nation-state could be deemed independent). And, as
Lenin particularly insisted, it is not conditional upon a
general valorization of cultural ‘nationality’. Traditional
codes of identity are not intrinsically less various in their
suggestions than those of so-called modernization, and
neither may presume to dictate canons of affinity. Where
valued continuities are threatened for no better reason
than that they offend against bureaucratic convenience
or commercial realism, they should be defended as a
matter of principle. But the propagation of nationality as
the necessary cultural warrant of political independence,
or of a deeper social emancipation beyond that, is a
reactionary diversion.

Luke Gibbons does not espouse a purist cultural
nationalism (he would have me believe otherwise, but I
cannot oblige him); his affinities lie closer to the ‘civic’

nationalisms of Scotland or Lithuania than to the ethnic
particularisms of the Balkans. But Lithuania was until


very recently an unwilling partner in an oppressive
‘union’; the people of Scotland have not (yet) severed
the Anglo-British lien on their national rights. What is
Gibbons’s national cause? The interpretive bent of his
reply is telling. My article was written in a pragmatic
present tense; its address was from and to a current
situation. But Gibbons submits it to a preteritive reading,
converting present into past. I described Old English,
Anglo-Irish, Ulster Protestant and Gaelic traditions as
participating on ‘equal’ terms in the ecumenical design
of The Field Day Anthology; he reminds me that the first
three represented different ‘intensities of conquest’ (28).

My criticism of skewed editorial perception in respect of
feminism and socialism is met with the counter-charge
that I have ignored the complex pattern of ideological
forces in Ireland ‘at the turn of the century’ (29). A
reference to the ‘dominant local tradition’ , meaning that
of southern Ireland since Independence, prompts a
sonorous evocation of ‘the might of the British
Empire’ (28). The summarizing judgement on me is that
I lack sympathy with ‘a culture still trying to come to
terms with centuries of colonial domination’. In short
(the phrase is embarrassingly trite, but it applies),
Gibbons is living in the past.

The supremely important fact about Irish nationalism
is that it was successful, forcing the withdrawal of the
imperial power from most of the island, pressing the
agrarian settlement to an unambiguous popular
conclusion, and securing, by the late forties, a stable,
neutral republican state. To describe the culture and
society thus created as ‘postcolonial’ is either
platitudinous or – more interestingly – tendentious. 9 Had
the old Gaelic order by some miracle frustrated the
purposes of its far more powerful neighbour, and also
the rival purposes of continental powers equally well

aware of the country’s crucial strategic value, Ireland
would of course be a different place today. But to reassert
the actual history, the accomplished colonial fact, as the
defining crux of Irish culture today – three generations
after Independence – is tantamount to suggesting that
indigenous propertied classes and their politico-cultural
elites are not really responsible for the forms of
exploitation and oppression they have conserved or
developed in their own bourgeois state, and that radical
social critics must acknowledge a continuing, mitigating
‘national’ ordeal. The name for this is postcolonial
melancholy.lo Its political implication, like that of any
nationalism prolonged beyond its validating political
occasions, is confusionist and, at worst, reactionary.

Northern exposures
No one will have overlooked the objection to my line of
argument. The Irish national revolution was by its own
standards not wholly successful, falling short of its
historic ambition to reconquer the entire island. Nationbuilding in the south was conditioned from its traumatic
outset – the Civil War – by that fact. Across the border,
and also amid bloodshed, Orangeism set about subduing
a Catholic population now locked in a rump Union
sustained by a large Protestant majority. The history of
that ugly, introverted state, and of Catholic resistance to
its systematic injustices, has normally been told as that
of a colonial residue and an unfinished national struggle
to recover it.

However, the test facing Irish nationalism in the
current ‘peace process’ is not that envisaged in the
familiar narrative. I I It is, finally, to confront the reality of
Protestant Ulster. Partition came about and was
consolidated above all because that regional majority
refused to join the island majority in a single, separate

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state, and no other party to the crisis was both willing
and able to overrule it. The outcome was serviceable to
British interests at the time and for some decades to
come, and a profound affront to the nationalist
movement; the territorial scale of the partition flouted
democratic mandates, encouraging still greater extremes
of paranoia and abjection in the predictable future. Yet
some division of political space had been made
unavoidable by the whole anterior development of the
island, which, by then, was home to two clearly distinct
and mutually antagonistic societies. 12 A whole colonial
history went into the making of Partition. But to insist on
that today, nearly four hundred years after the
expropriations that founded the Ulster settlement, is an
evasion. The Irish Protestants of north-east Ulster are no
longer frontier settlers in an exposed imperial possession,
but they never became part of the subject people that
rallied in the nineteenth century as ‘the Irish nation’ . This
is the historical reality, ‘postcolonial’ in an uncommonly
prosaic and exacting sense, that shapes northern political
and cultural prospects today.

A democratic and just peace for northern Catholics:

that, the surviving rationale of historic Irish nationalism,
is the first requirement in any formula deserving the name
of ‘solution’. But it cannot be attained except as part of a
historic settlement with Ulster Protestants, and this
requires a recognition that Irish nationalism has no
rightful (let alone realistic) claim to their collective
political allegiance. Any agreed constitutional
arrangement that secures these two requirements will
serve as a valid beginning of an end of Ireland’s national

The possible forms of the end (there have always been
more than the canonical two, and the development of the
European Union will modify the balance of
considerations in all cases) are, decisively, political.

However, it is already clear that struggles over
constitutional and social outcomes will be
overdetermined by a cultural politics of identity – this,
precisely, has been the rationale of Field Day’s projects
– and here too the advocates of Ireland-as-nation must
accept a test and a heavy responsibility. Northern
Catholics are more widely practised in the complexities
of identity and affiliation than their traditional champions
care to believe; Ulster Protestants will be slow to venture
out of the garish bunker of loyalism if the only Irishness
allowed them is one entailing accession to the ‘national’

identity and an all-island state. Workers in both
communities, whose organic leaderships are now
emerging as the more creati ve forces in northern politics,
need to find ways of articulating their common class
interests. It was such things, among others, that I had in

mind in writing that ‘nationality need not be … and arguably – cannot be’ the ‘decisive term’ ofIrish politics
today.13 The idioms, symbols and tropisms of a
reconciled northern culture (if the favouring political
conditions for it prove attainable) will grate on many a
nationalist (and Orange) sensibility, but they will be as
Irish as any others in the island. Those who cannot live
with this prospect will have to resort to the Brechtian
‘solution’: dismiss the Irish people and recruit a proper

1. Luke Gibbons, ‘Dialogue Without the Other? A Reply to
Francis Mulhern’, Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994,
pp. 28-31; Francis Mulhern, ‘A Nation, Yet Again: The
Field Day Anthology’, Radical Philosophy 65, autumn
1993, pp. 23-9. Further references to Gibbons’s reply are
given as bracketed page numbers in the main text, thus:


2. The General Editor’s own reflections have since appeared
in Dympna Callaghan, ‘Interview With Seamus Deane’,
Social Text 38, Spring 1994, pp. 39-50.

3. ‘The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond this
antithesis between itself and this romantic viewpoint, and
therefore the latter will accompany it as its legitimate
antithesis up to its blessed end’: Karl Marx, Grundrisse:

Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough
Draft), translated by Martin Nicolaus, Harmondsworth,
Penguin, 1973, p. 162.

4. Ibid., p. 101.

5. Roberto Schwarz, Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian
Culture, translated and introduced by John Gledson,
London, Verso, 1992. The essay ‘Brazilian Culture:

Nationalism by Elimination’ (pp. 1-18) is particularly
relevant to the controversy between us.

6. However, not having seen the paper from which Gibbons
quotes (his n.1 0), I cannot claim that my interpretation of
Willemen’s formulation conforms with his own.

7. ‘A Nation, Yet Again’, p. 27.

8. See, for one compilation among others of his writings on
the topic, V. I. Lenin, Questions of National Policy and
Proletarian Internationalism, Moscow, Progress
Publishers, 1964. For a very useful conspectus of the
history of Marxist debate over nations and nationalism,
see Michael L6wy, ‘Marxists and the National Question’,
New Left Review 96, March-April 1976, pp. 81-100.

9. Compare, on this point and generally, Aijaz Ahmad’s
splendid In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures,
London, Verso, 1992, pp. 171, 11 (reviewed by Alan
Durant in Radical Philosophy 67: ‘Moral Agents, Not
Servants of Power’, pp. 48-50).

10. I adapt this phrase from WaIter Benjamin; see his ‘Leftwing Melancholy’, Screen, vol. 15, no. 2, Summer 1974,
pp. 28-32.

11. Gibbons says very little about Northern Ireland, for
reasons I cannot presume either to know or to judge.

Nothing in these closing paragraphs necessarily applies to

12. Unlike the Anglo-Irish, who were a colonial ruling class
raised over a native peasantry whom they ruled and
exploited, the Ulster Protestants came to constitute a
whole society, staffing all the class positions in their
regional social formation in rough proportion to their
numbers there.

13. ‘A Nation, Yet Again’, p. 28.


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