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Joyce, Imperialism, & Postcolonialism (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 3-4, Spring-Summer 2009
pp. 588-592 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0030

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Leonard Orr's new collection of essays aspires to join the scholarly discussion on postcolonial studies that began in earnest in the 1970s and that has come to have an increasingly important presence in both Joyce and Irish studies. Indeed, in "The Return and Redefinition of the Repressed," Eugene O'Brien remarks that the relevance of postcolonial studies is "now beyond debate" (41), and Orr, in his introduction, claims that a "paradigm shift" in the 1990s, which ushered in (among other things) postcolonial studies, made it "no longer possible to ignore" the relevance of empire, colonialism, and postcolonialism in Joyce's work (5). The argument for a paradigm shift does not hold up, of course, in large measure because latter-day trends are linked by multiple affiliations with what came before. But he is right about one thing: postcolonial approaches are now part of a dominant, historicist trend in Joyce studies.

Joyce, Imperialism, & Postcolonialism consists of seven essays that focus mostly on Dubliners and Ulysses. While there is no dominant theme that unifies them, more than half are concerned with imperial or colonial discourse. Allan H. Simmons and Christy L. Burns both raise questions about the role played by topography and cartography, suggesting that the postcolonial element in Joyce's text has much to do with the representation of space. Simmons's argument that Dubliners historicizes topography is to some extent an updated reading of how characters negotiate social space, and it usefully fleshes out the colonial context. I remain puzzled, however, by his claim that it is ultimately the reader's responsibility to make interpretation a "postcolonial and subversive" experience (29). Could this possibly be true of all or even some readers? And if it were, how would it work? Simmons's essay does not sufficiently address these questions. Burns's analysis of Brian Friel's Translations and Joyce's Finnegans Wake offers a somewhat firmer foundation for theoretical speculation about mapping in literary texts. Cartography works well as a lens through which to view Friel's play, which is about mapmaking, but I found it less effective for a reading of Finnegans Wake, in which the concrete function of cartography devolves into abstractions: "Joyce often double-maps time and space" (140). This efficacy is further marred by a confusing discussion of the relationship between the postcolonial and the postmodern. Burns argues that the conflict revealed between "two cartographies (postmodern and imperialist) … might be between postcolonialism and a narrow form of nationalism" (128). Readers unfamiliar with the debate between postmodern and postcolonial discourses will find such statements bewildering. Further, when she remarks that a decentralized pre-colonial Ireland "was already postmodern in its fragmentary culture and political divisions" (132), one wonders if she misrepresents Ireland or banalizes postmodernism.

Jon Hegglund argues in a similar vein that the "imperial archive" serves as a model for the textuality of the "Ithaca" episode of Ulysses. This tantalizing idea offers an alternative to dehistoricized readings of the episode. Hegglund claims that "Ithaca" "presents itself as a repository of value-neutral facts unmediated by any subjective perception or overt formal parody" but then goes on to say that Joyce practices a form of "parodic subversion" (59). It is not altogether clear what claim he is making. Does Joyce start with a neutral repository and then practice a form of parodic subversion, or does he extend the imaginative potential of an already subverted archive? These are tricky questions that get to the heart of Joycean parody in "Ithaca," which has many more antecedents (catechisms, catalogues, instruction manuals, definitions, and so on) than the imperial archive. Or are these all part of that archive? Hegglund's most persuasive remarks seem to suggest as much. Concerning the famous water passage (U 17.183-228), he notes that Joyce balances "the hydrographical with the topographical imagination" and by so doing "imagines the potential for an Irish identity that avoids both the Scylla of imperial co-optation and the Charybdis of exclusionary nationalism" (73). This is a good point, but it would be more compelling were Hegglund to compare this passage with others that perform different parodic functions with respect to the archive. It would be useful too...

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