Freeware Irish Essay

A Queer Irish Studies

A recent special issue on queer studies for the Irish University Review suggests the strength and depth of that scholarly area in Irish Studies.1 Drawing together many of the leading scholars, graduate students, and activists in the field, the issue culminates many years of dedicated work by often isolated individuals challenging more dominant modes of inquiry. It was dedicated to the work of Ailbhe Smyth, honoring her lifetime of struggle for justice and recognition for Ireland’s LGBTQI2 communities. Fittingly the issue emerged from University College Dublin, where over fourteen years ago, Smyth founded the first M.A. program addressing queer issues, “Lesbian Studies and Queer Culture.”

Throughout her career at University College Dublin, Smyth met considerable resistance, but she was also supported by some few individuals, such as Aideen Quilty, who spoke of the centrality of her endeavors [End Page 289] for Irish queer studies at the Women’s Education, Research and Resource Centre (WERRC). Quilty marked out WERRC as “an incubation space for queerly invested individuals” at a time when there were “few examples of modules, let alone specific programs of study relevant to lesbian and queer lives” in Ireland or, indeed, the United Kingdom.3 The Centre’s mandate was to “transform the university’s organization of knowledge and to challenge its exclusions”;4 under the auspices of WERRC a new generation of Irish scholars and activists found its voice.

Building on these auspicious beginnings, Noreen Giffney and Micheal O’Rourke initiated the The(e)ories seminar at UCD, a series of lectures, forums, and workshops dedicated to the promotion of queer theory in the Irish academy. The(e)ories quickly made a name for itself as a leading center of excellence in Ireland and beyond. Giffney’s response to Tom Inglis’s puzzlement at the lack of work in Ireland on sexuality in her seminal essay “Quare Theory” set the tone for a sustained conversation about the heteronormative, indeed masculinist, presumptions of Irish Studies.5 Even if Inglis was sympathetic to the endeavors of Giffney and company (and we cannot know either way), that he had not even noticed them starkly revealed the challenges they faced. Often, it was not that such scholars were being resisted, but that they were, institutionally speaking, simply invisible (or actively repressed). In this context, a list of the many extraordinary individuals who have presented at their forum—Judith Butler, Judith Halberstam, Lee Edelman, Leo Bersani, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—demonstrates their resourcefulness in the face of a continuing struggle for resources and institutional recognition. If, as O’Rourke has recently suggested, the Irish queer theory scene has been “crucially important globally for over a decade now,” The(e)ories played a major role in positioning Irish scholars at the forefront of debates.6

In 2007, Anne Mulhall, lead editor of the Irish University Review special issue mentioned above, joined O’Rourke and Giffney in their [End Page 290] endeavors; since then the study of sexualities at UCD has gone from strength to strength. Conversations with current graduate students pursuing queer studies in Ireland inevitably elicit tributes to a handful of tenacious individuals and their quiet but powerful commitment to a critique of mainstream Irish Studies. Before they made their mark, many of those scholars had themselves to endure a very different experience. Éibhear Walshe, when a student at UCD, recalls feeling compelled to study the dominant figures—John Banville, for example, or Patrick Kavanagh—while quietly pursuing an independent interest in more marginal figures such as Mary Dorcey and Kate O’Brien.6 Finally the...

As its subtitle makes clear, The Poor Bugger’s Tool both draws from and draws together key terms from four fields of significance for Joyce studies: Irish studies, queer theory/sexuality studies, Marxist theory, and postcolonial studies. As we might expect from Patrick R. Mullen’s titular choice of a Joycean synecdoche enfolding colonial resistance/oppression, class, sexual deviance, and production, Joyce’s extravagant textual strategies are both structurally and conceptually pivotal to Mullen’s project. Joyce’s centrality to Mullen’s work here is confirmed in the study’s fourth chapter when the author positions a reading of Joyce’s incorporation of Roger Casement in Ulysses.

Structurally, Mullen’s Joyce chapter affords a transition from early sections devoted, respectively, to Oscar Wilde, J. M. Synge, and Casement to two final chapters focusing on the Irish cultural production of Patrick McCabe, Neil Jordan, and Jamie O’Neill. As Mullen explains, the “queer sensibilities that emerge in Wilde, Synge, Casement, and Joyce” are analyzed as “experimental aesthetic forms” whose excess is “a critical response to the strictures of a British imperialist imaginary” (16). In its later chapters, “the study [suggests] that these aesthetic experiments were a success” and that “Irish modernists were able to transform affective excess into forms of cultural value” (16). Conceptually, it is in Ulysses that the “subterranean vein of queer sexual discourses” Mullen traces within fin de siècle and early-twentieth-century Irish culture becomes legible as “a dynamic framework for thinking critically about colonial and capitalist exploitation,” allowing for “potentially reparative forms of cultural production beyond an American model of identity politics” (8).

For decades, Irish, modernist, and Joyce-studies scholars have sought a vantage point from which to theorize such reparative forms. Yet these efforts, though widespread, earnest, and often ingenious, have in one respect proved surprisingly unfruitful. On the whole, scholars remain as polarized as ever with reference to gender and sexuality and nation and empire. This polarization persists despite many successful individual efforts to bridge the material or cultural divide so as to produce analysis that attends to racial, national, and cultural identities as mediated and mediating between economic- [End Page 856] political and sexual-gendered axes of privilege and oppression. While there are doubtless many factors contributing to this dismayingly chronic disconnect, Mullen has persuasively identified one that may be a key factor.

A major impediment to any political theorization of sexuality—and the modern identity categories that sexual acts, desires, and prohibitions make palpable—is traceable to Michel Foucault’s famous demolition of the repressive hypothesis in The History of Sexuality, Volume I.1 Mullen argues that the disconnect between identity categories and economic and political structures can be traced to the differing uses of Foucault by those trained as queer theorists and those trained as postcolonialists. Queer theorists, following Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s lead,2 focus on Foucault’s dismissal of the so-called repressive hypothesis and his (possibly misinterpreted) claim that, around the turn of the twentieth century, “homosexuality”—an aggregate of disparate and more or less random sexual activities—was reified into one coherent and recognizable social identity (43). Postcolonialists (exemplified by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri3) draw upon the work’s final section on biopower and biopolitics. Once grasped, Mullen’s opening claim is blindingly obvious, and yet it has gone heretofore unnoted.

From the outset, Mullen’s crisp explication of the ways in which different moments in History of Sexuality, Volume I have hypostasized within queer and postcolonial theory exposes a dynamic that has been muddling conversations within and beyond Joyce studies concerning the significance of sexual desires and acts within imperial capitalism. As Mullen elegantly argues, “Sedgwick … takes up the thread of Foucault’s analysis that attends to the discourse of sexual definition, but she does not follow this thread through to its knotted entanglement with capitalism” (12). Hardt and Negri, in a symmetrical set of emphases and exclusions, draw upon Foucault’s conceptions of biopolitics and biopower for their influential...

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