Postcolonial Theory and the GMM Project

Imperial Federation, Map of the World Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886, Walter Crane (1845-1915)

A few members of my PhD cohort and I recently started an informal reading group to trade texts and ideas about postcolonial theory and Irish Studies.  There is a great range of research specializations represented by the members — from the performance of masculinity in Civil War-era republican culture and the contested category of the town in Irish literature, to Irish language ecopoetry in the age of the Anthropocene and the colonial project associated to botanical gardens — so the conversations have always been rich and varied.  Throughout our discussions, I became increasingly aware of how the postcolonial is a concept (and a theoretical framework) from which it is difficult to escape in Irish Studies, but equally difficult to wield.  So, naturally, I started thinking about how this interacts with our work at the GMM.  A quick thought, based on a few texts that are sitting on my desk at the moment:

The multiplicity of colonial relations being enacted and negotiated in asylums and jails is truly astounding.  Canada is at once a colony but itself a colonizer of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.  Irish emigrants, fleeing from a Famine that can be, at best, described as aggravated by the horrific mismanagement of a British colonial administration, were themselves living under a colonial regime.  However, much ink has been spilled to problematize and contextualize the Irish experience of colonialism and imperialism.  In Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest(1995), Anne McClintock teases out the essence of the problematic: Ireland is said to be Britain’s first and oldest colony, but missing from this dynamic is the visual marker of a different skin colour (and the corresponding racist rhetoric of superiority) that underpinned much of Britain’s colonial enterprise.  Irish people also served as handmaidens of empire (I’m thinking of Giselle’s doctoral work about Cuba here, for example).  The key thing is to examine each relation – doctor and patient, gaoler and inmate, priest and believer, husband and wife, etc. – as articulating concepts of race, gender, class, sexuality as these “come into existence in and through relation to each other” (5) and are “mediated through institutions of power – the family, the media, the law, armies, nationalist movements, and so on.” (15)  By allowing for this fluidity of terms and categories, we can start to get closer to understanding the overlapping, sometimes contradictory, realities of colonial relations.  Sara Mills perhaps summarizes this best in Gender and Colonial Space (2005): “colonialism is clearly a range of different systems depending on the contexts in which it is played out; there are a number of agencies involved and different motivations, which meet with different forms of resistance and collaboration.” (6)

During our reading group meetings, we traded ideas about the actual job at hand for those looking to bring postcolonial theory to their work.  McClintock posits that “If the task of postcolonial criticism is to activate the uncertainties and in-betweens of discourse, well and good, but this could remain a formalist exercise unless one also undertakes the more demanding historical task of interrogating social practices, economic conditions and psychoanalytical dynamics that motivate and constrain human desire, action and power.” (73)  By merging qualitative discourse analysis and quantitative data-based regression analyses, I’m hoping that our ongoing research allows us to continue to do just that.


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