A Poetics of Dissensus

Confronting Violence in Contemporary Prose Writing from the North of Ireland

by Fiona McCann (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 238 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 59


Twenty years after the peace process began in the North of Ireland, many thorny political issues remain unresolved. One of the most significant questions involves the means by which acts of violence and the ideologies that subtended them can be dealt with, interrogated and questioned without rekindling conflict. This book focuses on a number of fictional and non-fictional texts published during the last two decades and analyses, through the prism of French cultural philosopher Jacques Rancière’s work, the emergence of an aesthetics of dissensus within these novels, short stories, graphic novels and memoirs. Associating close textual analyses with wider contextual readings, the book investigates the overlap of politics, aesthetics and the redistribution of the sensible in recent prose works, revealing how the authors avoid the pitfalls of a facile discourse of peace and reconciliation that whitewashes the past and behind which unaddressed tensions may continue to simmer.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Between Understatement and Overkill: Anna Burns’ No Bones and Little Constructions
  • Chapter 2: ‘The post-past city’: Apocalyptic Cityscapes and Cultural Stagnation in the Fiction of Sean O’Reilly
  • Chapter 3: Postcolonial Gothic and Body Politics in Recent Novels by Patrick McCabe
  • Chapter 4: The Politics of Identity and the Language of Dissensus in Ciaran Carson’s Exchange Place
  • Chapter 5: Whodunnit or Who Didn’t Do it? Authority and Poetic (In)Justice in Eoin McNamee’s The Blue Tango and Orchid Blue
  • Chapter 6: Consensus and Dissensus in Fictional Representations of Working Class Protestantism and Loyalism
  • Chapter 7: Aesthetics of Violence in Contemporary Irish Short Fiction
  • Chapter 8: Subverting Authority or Reinforcing Convention? Garth Ennis’s Graphic Novels
  • Chapter 9: Troubling Narratives of the Troubles: Commemoration, Sensationalism and Author-ity
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


It is always hard to know where to start when it comes to thanking those who have contributed, whether they know it or not, to the writing of a book. The most obvious place to start in this case is with Christabel Scaife and Eamon Maher at Peter Lang who encouraged me to pursue my writing and who offered invaluable advice throughout the process.

I would also like to gratefully acknowledge the financial help and intellectual support provided by my research laboratory CECILLE EA 4074 (Université de Lille 3), without which this project could never have come to fruition.

Some of the content has appeared as chapters or articles elsewhere and I am very grateful to the editors and peer reviewers in each case for their constructive advice. The genesis of Chapter 1 can be found in ‘“The Good Terrorist(s)?” Interrogating Gender and Violence in Ann Devlin’s “Naming the Names” and Anna Burns’ No Bones,’ Estudios irlandeses, Vol. 7 2012, 69–78 and that of Chapter 2 in ‘“The post-past city”: Apocalyptic Cityscapes and Cultural Stagnation in the Fiction of Sean O’Reilly,’ Marie Mianowski (ed.), Irish Contemporary Landscapes in Literature and the Arts, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 94–105.

Numerous colleagues have, of course, informed my thinking on the various issues raised by this volume. I would like to thank members of the Irish studies community in France and, in my own university in Lille, Catherine Maignant and Claire Dubois in particular. Outside France, too many scholars in Irish literature to name have contributed, both through intellectual discussion and their good humour, to the elaboration of various ideas explored here. Beyond Irish studies, many other colleagues have, at various times, helped me consider certain issues from different aspects: Sorcha Gunne, Zoë Brigley and Estelle Castro have been particularly helpful in this respect, as have writer and journalist Sorj Chalandon, Marta Dvořák, who supervised my PhD thesis on another subject entirely, Richard ← vii | viii → Samin, and Claire Omhovère, whose valuable comments as assessors of my PhD and much other work since then have enabled my work to mature. The students whom I have had the pleasure of teaching in the Irish studies Masters seminar in Lille, in particular Anne Duflos and Louise Henaff, have also provided interesting food for thought through their stimulating comments and observations in their own postgraduate work. I would also like to extend particular thanks to Nathalie Caleyron for so graciously allowing me to use one of her many fantastic paintings as the cover illustration for this book.

Many friends have also supported me in the writing of this book (not least in putting up with my subjecting them to endless boring rants on a subject in which few of them had any interest): Helen Ryden, Catherine McClean, Charlene Rice, Alison Cregan and Emma O’Neill (and partners!), thank you all for your patience, your amazing sense of humour and all those coffees, drinks and dinners. One dear friend and colleague has been especially present throughout the entire project, from its inception to the final draft: Alexandra Poulain, without our innumerable discussions, laughter in the TGV and your precious advice and support, this book would not exist.

Finally, without a supportive family, it would have been well-nigh impossible to write this book. My parents, Peggy and Oliver, who always encouraged us to think politically, my brothers, Ruairi and Donal, my sisters-in-law, Cristina and Teresa and my huge extended family (but in particular Mary, Deirdre and Claire) have all listened to, questioned and enriched my ideas on the matters explored in this book as well as on many others and I am truly grateful to them all for this. Last but in no way least, I owe a huge debt to my three children, Cara, Finn and Molly, who have put up with (though not without strong resistance!) their present-though-absent mother while this book was being written. As for David, thank you for everything. ← viii | ix →


The school railings crumpled under the car’s snout
And the concave space was filled with toddlers and pram.
I did not see the bodies, only the bent metal, day after day,
Until even that, their only physical memorial, was removed.
That is how things are here, we pretend everything is straightened out

But look closer – closer – and you will see the terror-filled hollow
Between today’s flat surface and yesterday’s wrought, tortured steel.
That is how things are here, a cold war, an armed stand-off,

Between truth and lies, between prayer and pagan sacrifice.

— PÓLÓ MUIRÍ, ‘Cold War’
← ix | x →

← x | 1 →


Whatever You Say, Say Something

During the build-up in 2011 to what was arguably the most exciting Presidential election campaign in decades in Ireland, not least because of entertaining shenanigans surrounding brown envelopes, one thing at least became perfectly clear thanks to the candidacy of Martin McGuinness: the extreme violence which marked the process leading to and continuing on from the birth of the Irish Free State is so unpalatable to both the political class and state media that few were prepared to acknowledge the hypocrisy and absurdity of attempts to disqualify McGuinness as a worthwhile contender on the basis of his past as a member of the IRA. This attitude was hypocritical on many different levels; not only did it reveal the double standards which mean that while it was deemed acceptable for McGuinness to be Deputy First Minister in the North and therefore to occupy a position of relative power, the idea that he might become President of Ireland was somehow objectionable, but it also highlighted only too obviously the collective amnesia which has allowed Irish people to forget that Eamon De Valera, and others who would become major political actors in the Free State, were also, once upon a time, involved in political violence. When Miriam O’Callaghan (RTÉ) felt justified in asking the other candidates what they thought of McGuinness’s candidacy and how he himself ‘square[ed] with [his] God the fact that [he was] involved in the murder of so many people’ she displayed an ugly yet symptomatic response to political violence and its legacy in Ireland, as well as displaying the non-secular nature of Irish state media. Moreover, it is significant that although the current government has created an advisory group in order to consider how best to commemorate major events during this ‘Decade of Centenaries,’ in spite of claims that the period taken into account is ← 1 | 2 → 2012–2022, the advisory group is only expected to run until 2016, after which the ‘commemorative programme’ will possibly come to an end.1 This speaks volumes about the thorny questions which all these centenaries raise and the degree to which the nation feels able to deal with them.2

The peace process which has been ongoing in the North for almost two decades now has brought to the fore the extremely problematic politics of dealing with a contemporary past fraught with violence. Indeed, recent events such as the flag protests held in 2012–13 or the simmering tensions which flare up each year during the marching season, to name but these, all point towards the dangers of airbrushing out of history the underlying reasons for the conflict and of refusing to address contentious issues such ← 2 | 3 → as housing and education as they relate to the ethno-religious segregation which is so deeply anchored in the very geography of the North.3

The arts are undoubtedly one privileged area for tentatively or controversially exploring legacies of violence and for finding adequate modes of expression to deal with both the well-known and the untold stories of the Troubles and their rhizomatic consequences. However, as Danine Farquharson and Sean Farrell state in the introduction to their edited collection of essays entitled Shadows of the Gunmen: Violence and Culture in Modern Ireland, ‘violence is a complex and ever-shifting phenomenon, in which different players attempt to write narratives of violence that support their own agendas and purposes’ (2). Nevertheless, beyond the by now commonplace that every narrative is mediated by the point of view of s/he who is constructing it (Whyte/Hutcheon), it is important to take into consideration the fact that scenes of violence, pain and suffering ‘are very much about the construction of, but also a challenge to, certain modes of spectatorship and of viewing,’ particularly since what is at stake is very often not so much what is shown, the representation itself, but rather the potential ‘failure of representation’ which emphasises not what various texts show, ‘but what they do not show, or what shows itself only in their destruction or disintegration’ (Buch 16;18). Moreover, it is also important to bear in mind, as Michael Kowalewski, writing on violence in contemporary American fiction suggests we should, our own simultaneous horror and fascination when faced with instances of violence (Kowalewski 12–14). This has important implications for the means chosen by various writers to represent acts of brutality; as the various texts under study in this book show only too well, it is quite possible to oscillate between saturation of ← 3 | 4 → detail and a form of understatement which emphasises the unsayable and both strategies challenge the reader in different ways.

The vast majority of novels, shorts stories, graphic novels and non-fictional texts under scrutiny in the following chapters have been published since the Good Friday Agreement (10 April 1998), and as such, deal with the Troubles and the legacy of violence which extended (and continues to extend) well beyond the GFA and which the narrative of reconciliation and shared responsibility works hard to silence. As Benita Parry has pointed out in her discussion of post-Apartheid South Africa and the consequences of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the ‘chronicle of the past was directed at achieving national reconciliation and constituted neither an analytic, active engagement with history, nor a theoretical demolition of the ideologies underpinning segregation and apartheid’ (Parry 187). A similar observation can be made of the situation in the North of Ireland in which, I would contend, there has been little official ‘active engagement with history’ on the part of politicians and policy-makers and no sustained questioning of the ideologies underpinning and propping up a Unionist state or those underpinning resistance to it. In a sense, in terms of addressing what subtends simmering tensions and narrating the ‘chronicle of the past’, public political discourse has barely gone beyond Heaney’s oft-quoted ‘Whatever you say, you say nothing’ (Heaney 132), except that in this case, ‘nothing’ really means ‘nothing that will rock the boat too much.’ As Pól Ó Muirí puts it, ‘[t]hat is how things are here, we pretend everything is straightened out’ (Ó Muirí ‘Cold War,’ 50).4 This is where the arts have a particularly important role to play. McLaughlin and Baker have made a number of interesting points regarding the role played by media and culture in the establishment of what they call the ‘propaganda of peace,’ defined as ‘the work of a variety of social forces through a range of media ← 4 | 5 → and cultural forms, and its purpose is to bring society, culture or nation behind a core idea or principle, in this case, the promise of peace and its economic dividends after decades of conflict’ (McLaughlin & Baker 11). They go on to state that


X, 238
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
peace conflict politics aesthetics
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. X, 238 pp.

Biographical notes

Fiona McCann (Author)

Fiona McCann is Senior Lecturer in the English Department at the Université de Lille 3, where she teaches courses on contemporary Irish and South African literature and feminism. Her research focuses on the representation of violence in the literatures of these countries and the overlap of politics and aesthetics. She has published several articles and book chapters on contemporary postcolonial writers and has guest-edited special issues of Commonwealth Essays and Studies and Études irlandaises.


Title: A Poetics of Dissensus
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
247 pages