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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 1004-1008

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James Joyce After Postcolonialism

Susan Harris

David Attridge and Marjorie Howes, eds. Semicolonial Joyce. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. x + 267 pp.

M. Keith Booker. Ulysses, Capitalism and Colonialism: Reading Joyce After The Cold War. Westport: Greenwood, 2000. 230 pp.

In the first chapter of Ulysses, Capitalism, and Colonialism, M. Keith Booker relates an anecdote illustrating the strangely limited power of canonization. Watching a baseball game in 1997, Booker heard the commentators identify the umpire as a relative of "the famous Irish poet, James Joyce." Realizing that this characterization of Joyce might be inaccurate, the announcers sent their research staff to look him up. When the staff told them that Joyce was famous for having written Ulysses, the announcers were skeptical, "because they knew that Ulysses was an ancient Greek work, and not an Irish one" (24).

Booker tells this story to argue that any academic attempt to redefine Joyce as a "political" writer is doomed to be undermined by the difficulty of his work: Joyce can never be "political" in any material sense because his writing will never affect "the everyday lives of ordinary people" (24). But it is possible to read this anecdote as proof that Joyce does [End Page 1004] affect the lives of ordinary people--that, in fact, Joyce's name now has so much power that its mere introduction into this text transforms it from sports commentary into literary history. These "ordinary people" are (vaguely) aware not only of Joyce's status as a canonical figure, but also of a comparatively recent development in Joyce criticism. While the sportscasters get everything else wrong, the one thing they do know is that Joyce is Irish. After years of scholarship devoted to resituating Joyce's work in its historical, cultural, and political context, we can now speak--as Elizabeth Butler Cullingford does in her contribution to Semicolonial Joyce--of "the bad old days, when Joyce was an apolitical modernist" (221), before he became Irish and postcolonial. Of course, exactly what it means to become either of those things is still a vexed question, and it is to this question that both Booker's monograph and Derek Attridge and Marjorie Howes's collection address themselves.

Both books examine Joyce's new status as a postcolonial author, accepting the premise that Ireland's imperial history was a critical influence on Joyce's work but seeking to revise our conception of "postcolonial" and our understanding of Joyce's relationship to it. Picking up a hint dropped in Finnegans Wake, Howes and Attridge replace that famously problematic "post" with "semi," suggesting that ambivalence and hybridity may define Joyce's relationship to colonialism better than temporality can. Booker's title interposes capitalism between Ulysses and colonialism, signaling his conviction that Ulysses must be understood in Marxist terms before it can be understood as postcolonial. Howes and Attridge's collection ultimately delivers on the promise of its multivalent title; Booker's argument for the primacy of Marxist critique in this context is--while committed, courageous, and important--ultimately less successful.

As articulated by Howes and Attridge in their elegant introduction, the construct of "semicoloniality" describes both Joyce's politics and the ways in which "Joyce's handling of political matters is always mediated by his strong interest in, and immense skill with, language" (3). The "semicolonial" reading assumes that, while Joyce was engaged with "questions of nationalism and imperialism," his position is "not reducible to a simple anticolonialism" any more than it constitutes an endorsement of "colonial organizations and methods" (3). Escaping all attempts to push him to one side of any boundary, Joyce explodes the "structure of opposition" [End Page 1005] (1) by releasing "language's potential for multiple suggestiveness," which allows him to "stage political issues with an openness to manifold outcomes that is impossible in the purely pragmatic sphere" (3). The "undecidability" identified here as foundational to Joyce's political and literary practices mirrors an undecidability that characterizes Ireland's relationship to the First and Third worlds--which, in turn, highlights some of the...


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