- Introduction:Ireland and the Contemporary
Is it possible for scholars to study the contemporary? There are indications that the task is beyond viability, if we take the contemporary to encompass events, writings, artistic expressions, and cultural practices no more than a few years removed from the present. Consider, for example, the sheer volume of source material that scholars must contend with. Despite lamentations for the decline in book publishing, the number of titles produced each year as measured by annual ISBNs issued has ballooned by nearly 500 percent in a decade. Literature is one of the largest categories of publishing genres, with between 43,000 and 53,000 ISBNs assigned annually by the bibliographic provider Bowker in 2005–13 as part of an overall output that regularly tops over a million and a half books published each year across all subjects. Moreover, scholars must contend with the fact that this literary corpus increasingly emerges from the world of self-publishing, not presses.1 The astonishing number of electronic records produced each year—there are by one count, for example, over a billion websites currently in existence—was flagged as a daunting problem of scale for interpreting historical sources by Roy Rosenzweig fourteen years ago, and the potential impossibility of comprehending the written record has only grown in the years since.2 The barriers may be theoretical as much as logistical. Eric Hayot has written [End Page 9] of the need for "leverage"—the gap between one's subject and the scholar's own perspective that enables one to build scholarly criticism—and the ability to recover the subject's own historicized point of view as two essential requirements for effective analysis. Although scholars of the contemporary generally can establish the latter, having leverage for current subjects is impossible since we lack any gap in perspective built by the passage of time.3 In other words, researchers can know a subject's past but not its future, with the risk of producing a scholarly analysis that is no more compelling or insightful than the statements of the subject itself.
And yet the evidence suggests that these difficulties have dissuaded neither scholars from addressing the contemporary, nor academic centers (particularly university libraries) from building and shaping the collections of contemporary sources that will come to serve as the raw materials for understanding the present once it becomes past. An analysis of panel subjects at conferences hosted by the American Conference for Irish Studies (ACIS) since 1967, as part of an ongoing project to trace trends in U.S. Irish Studies scholarship, reveals that the word "contemporary" has been the second-most frequent word (second only to "literature") to appear in ACIS panel titles in the past fifty years.4 One out of six papers (eight papers out of forty-eight) at the 2015 International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures (IASIL) referred explicitly to the contemporary in its title, and an examination of participants' research specialties at the 2016 conference uncovers a widespread interest in the study of contemporary drama, literature, culture, and poetry.5 Meanwhile, the 2017 IASIL theme is "Ireland's Writers in the 21st Century." Hints at scholarly willingness to engage with contemporary subjects, at least from a literary perspective, emerge from a look at library acquisitions as well. [End Page 10] A recently completed analysis of Irish-born authors and Irish-related subject matters in the holdings of WorldCat, the world's largest aggregation of library-catalogue data, has confirmed the emphasis on modernism, the Gothic, and the fin-de-siècle in collections—Swift, Goldsmith, Stoker, and Wilde are dominant. But authors active in the 1990s and especially the 2000s have been more actively sought by libraries in recent years, even over reprints of the classics, so that while acquisitions of Stoker's Dracula remain popular for the years 2000–4, contemporary authors Maeve Binchy, Marian Keyes, and children's literature writer Eoin Colfer dominated the purchase lists in that period.6
Acknowledging this clear interest in tackling the contemporary as a subject, this special issue has been assembled as part of a longer theoretical engagement by...