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Reimagining Irish Studies for the Twenty-First Century

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Edited By Eamon Maher and Eugene O'Brien

This landmark collection marks the publication of the 100th book in the Reimagining Ireland series. It attempts to provide a «forward look» (as opposed to what Frank O’Connor once referred to as the « backward look») at what Irish Studies might look like in the third millennium. With a Foreword by Declan Kiberd, it also contains essays by several other leading Irish Studies experts on (among other areas) literature and critical theory, sport, the Irish language, food and beverage studies, cinema, women’s writing, Brexit, religion, Northern Ireland, the legacy of the Great Famine, Ireland in the French imagination, archival research, musicology, and Irish Studies in North America. The book is a tribute to Irish Studies’ foundational commitment to revealing and renewing Irishness within and beyond the national space.

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18 The Dawning of Difference: Literary and Cultural Theory in Irish Studies

Extract

EUGENE O’BRIEN

Perhaps, then, the day is not so far off when Irish structuralists will meet in Belfast to discuss the latest reading of Barbara Johnson’s reading of Derrida’s reading of Lacan’s reading of The Purloined Letter.1

Thus spoke Tom Paulin about the dawning of theory in Irish Studies, in 1984, embodying as he did Paul de Man’s notion of the ‘resistance to theory’. For de Man, the resistance to theory ‘is a resistance to the use of language about language’,2 and in this particular case, the resistance was about ‘theory’ taking precedence over the disciplinary specificities of literature and history. Going back to the time of Immanuel Kant, keeping faculties separate was central to much academic thinking:

The higher faculties must, therefore, take great care not to enter into a misalliance with the lower faculty, but must keep it at a respectful distance, so that the dignity of their statutes will not be damaged by the free play of reason.3

Intellectually, Irish Studies has the imperative of allowing the ‘free play of reason’ to range across different texts, from various disciplines, that outlined the Irish experience. However, it also had a hard-headed economic dimension, as American, and later European students, looked to understand the Irish experience, fuelled by diasporic connections with ←283 | 284→the country, and were seen as a lucrative market. So, in the beginning, Irish Studies comprised the literary canon – Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Synge – and readings of these...

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