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Public Works: Infrastructure, Irish Modernism, and the Postcolonial (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 372-378 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0050

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Academic fashions and trends are sometimes cyclical, so it is not surprising that the emphasis on “global” and even “planetary” modernisms should give way to a resurgence of critical and theoretical work focusing on local, primarily national modernisms. This is not to suggest a regression, far from it, for this resurgence is characterized by sophisticated theoretical approaches to literary history and genre that enable us to see the specifically nationalist dimension of modernist production without at the same time insisting on an essentialist understanding of nationalism or a nationalist understanding of modernism. It is also characterized by a tendency toward comparativism that acknowledges the complexities of the newly discovered globalized context for modernist literature and art without allowing those complexities to overwhelm or dilute the explanatory power of the concept “modernism.” Nowhere is this felicitous combination more evident than in the recent outpouring of work on Irish modernism, a trend with origins in the emergence of Irish revisionist criticism and theory in the 1980s, which closely examined Revivalist, feminist, and nationalist movements in Ireland and abroad and found there a unique set of modernist themes and practices. Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, who have attached to these developments the uninspired epithet “new modernist studies,” have nevertheless hit on an important context in which to study Irish modernism.1 The temporal and spatial expansion that, for them, characterizes modernist studies today is well exemplified by the Irish case, in which modernist practices can be found both outside the typical temporal markers (circa 1890–1939) and beyond the confines of Ireland’s national locations.

Michael Rubenstein’s Public Works asks us to look at a new dimension of a specifically Irish modernism when he argues for the vital importance of infrastructure, specifically electricity, water, and gas. Following the lead of Bruce Robbins, Michael Bérubé, and others,2 Rubenstein frames his argument within “a Benjaminian, redemptionist, weak-messianic story about the development of public utilities as the development of a common good” (7). He regards the texts under consideration, including Joyce’s Ulysses and Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman,3 as “postcolonial comedies of development” (12) and thereby avoids the tendency towards tragic readings of under-development on the imperial peripheries. The problematic concept of “alternative modernity,” often invoked to mask or defend under-development and global inequalities, is here rehabilitated in order to argue that in Ireland, as in other postcolonial locations, public utilities constitute the dynamic sign of just such an alternative.

Rubenstein must overcome at the outset a trend rooted in Romanticism that sees public utilities as inimical to aesthetic sensitivities. The solution, he argues, is to revalue “the absolute antagonism of utility and the aesthetic,” so as “to explore possible cognitive, categorical—and . . . literary and generic—recombinations” of the two (22). The modernist revaluation of utility paralleled an even more radical revaluation of aesthetics, which could account for the sensible in a direct fashion that Romanticism might find unseemly. The “stereotypical Irish attitude toward utilitarianism and modernization” is powerfully exemplified by Irish reactions to the Famine, which, for many Irish commentators, was facilitated by the failure of public works and of the larger ethico-political conception of the “common good” (25). The result, as Rubenstein points out in a reading of the nineteenth-century revolutionary John Mitchel’s Jail Journal, is a split personality: on one side, national identity and, on the other, the liberal utilitarianism associated with the British imperial state and its control of infrastructure.4

Irish modernism overcomes this split personality, in no small measure, due to the literary efforts of people like Joyce. Rubenstein believes that “Irish modernism distinguishes itself by . . . its precociousness, and its restriction to literature” (32), a claim against which it is difficult to mount a compelling argument. What is needed, and this is Rubenstein’s general warrant, is “a synthesis that places Ireland’s material and engineering cultures in dialogue with Ireland’s literary cultures” (31). This is a laudable aim, though it restricts the argument to a relatively few texts that explicitly engage public utilities. Nowhere is this synthesis more dramatically and problematically conveyed than in Denis Johnston’s The Moon in the Yellow River (premiered at...

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