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Reviewed by:
  • Public Works: Infrastructure, Irish Modernism, and the Postcolonial
  • Trevor Sawler
Michael Rubenstein. Public Works: Infrastructure, Irish Modernism, and the Postcolonial. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 2010. vii + 281 pp.

Given the wealth of critical studies that deal with such literary giants as James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, and Flann O'Brien, it is sometimes difficult to imagine coming across a new book that has the potential to profoundly change the way that we look at Irish modernism. Michael Rubenstein's Public Works: Infrastructure, Irish Modernism, and the Postcolonial is such a book. In large part, the success of this study is the result of a novel approach: rather than beginning with the notoriously difficult texts and attempting to decode them, he instead invites his readers to consider the Irish modernists from the somewhat counterintuitive position of the modernist as a commentator on technology. The basis for his investigation is found in the relationship among three things: technological advancement, Irish culture and national self-identity and, of course, the literature itself. The technology he refers to is not, as one might expect, the automobile, radio, or telephone, but rather water, gas, and electricity. His rationale for limiting his consideration of technological advancement to public utilities is closely related to Irish culture: although he freely admits that public schools, railroads, and the automobile are important advancements, "these things did not enter the home and the domestic sphere so intrusively" (5). It is in these three things—water, power, and gas—that Rubenstein discovers "moments in fiction where the state—or rather, that ambiguous, ideal, and fictive institution that magically supplies 'basic amenities'—becomes visible through the [End Page 175] unnoticed rituals of daily life" (9). Rubenstein argues that public utilities are not merely important for what they provide, but also for what they represented to Ireland. Ready access to heat, light, and water within the home came to suggest a potential for a near-utopian kind of modernity, and an idealized version of the postcolonial state. In effect, engineering advances in Ireland came to change the way that the Irish people saw themselves; Ireland was no longer a mere colony, but instead a modern nation, and it was becoming more modern with each passing year.

Rubenstein's argument goes considerably further than this. He does not merely depict the Irish modernists as a group of writers struggling to come to terms with modernity; instead, he asks his readers to understand the modernists as a kind of public work in and of themselves. Most of the writers that Rubenstein deals with are to some extent self-consciously nationalist, and he argues that Joyce, O'Brien, Beckett, and Johnston are all, on some level, attempting to engage with the changing face of their nation. Perhaps the most effective way to illustrate this is to consider Rubenstein's reading of Ulysses.

Rubenstein begins his examination of Ulysses with the ready admission that he is not the first to explore Joyce's apparent fascination with technology. From the very outset Rubenstein demonstrates just how different his reading of Ulysses will be. Rather than offering yet another discussion of Joyce and technology, Rubenstein presents Joyce as a kind of moderator between modernism and technological progress:

As an Irish writer, however, Joyce was keenly aware of the complicity between colonialism and modernization. His version of modernization, therefore, much like his version of modernism, is eccentric and strains to find a way to reconcile the technological progress of modernity with a vision of the common good. Public works, I argue, are Joyce's answer to the depredations of modernity, as well as his affirmation of modernity's utopian promise.


Inherent in this reading of Joyce is a kind of contradiction: Joyce is optimistic that modernity might be beneficial for his nation, and at the same time he uses Ulysses to acknowledge and condemn the damage that technological innovation brings to the Irish. Rubenstein coins a term to describe this contraction: he calls Joyce's approach "a postcolonial comedy of development" (47). For Rubenstein, Joyce is a writer very different from the one that we see in the seminal criticism of Ulysses. For example, he...


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