Gavin Murphy reviews George Legg’s book, Northern Ireland and the Politics of Boredom, published by Manchester University Press.
My twelve-year-old son often complains of being bored. No amount of suggestions on my part will spark the necessary energy for him to commit to something – anything, I will eventually say in exasperation. My tactic now is to invoke Nike’s mantra, ‘Just Do It’, drawing on his love of sport and penchant for streetwise sports clothing as a means for him to surmount a lethargy that binds. It works (for the time being). Of course, I recognize a degree of manipulation when I summon the energy of competition, the lure of achievement and recognition, and, the notion of pushing yourself to the limit – all of which are captured in Nike’s branding campaign. He has no hope against this wall of positivity. It’s a result. We end up playing ping pong.
I am aware of the irony of this, given I lecture in Critical Theory. I often perceive this discipline of thought as born from the moment when the emancipatory potential of the proletariat is seen to fade. The dreams of the left are thereafter to be held in tension with grim reality. Dreams are to be seen for what they are and the role of the critic is to eke out spaces of possibility. Debates between Adorno and Benjamin helped shape the contours familiar to us now. Benjamin found an immediate revolutionary potential in new mass media such as photography and film, whereas Adorno sensed its sheer improbability. Adorno instead found value in the autonomous work of art for its ability to resist assimilation and hold out against political ends to which it is often called upon to serve. Its very detachment from the social order may blunt a critical trajectory but a criticism attending to its inherent dialectical qualities preserves an emancipatory possibility, albeit a very distant one. Adorno’s melancholic tone was hardly a motor for change and a new wave of critics sought new forms of being and becoming in the spontaneity and radical dissensus of the multitude, generating rich debate as to this possibility in a world of increasing surveillance and control.
George Legg’s book, Northern Ireland and the Politics of Boredom, sits snug amidst this critical consistency. Boredom, it turns out, is less an isolated personal affliction than a collective disempowerment imposed by capitalism. The spectacle of capital is monotonous and banal. It is also a means to manage disruption and contain disorder. An eye, attentive to boredom, can contest imposed meaning and thereby critique the workings of capital. Various efforts to contain local history more often than not animate Legg’s critical vision. The Titanic Belfast experience is seen to erase the sectarian history of the shipyards while promising a prosperous future for all. The efforts of the Maze Long Kesh Development Corporation to redevelop the site whilst trying to acknowledge its past is considered in all its absurdity. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is seen to consolidate an historical narrative where the tragedy of the past is to give way to a fresh start. This is one where the ‘two traditions’ are locked into a consociational structure – a kind of containment designed so as not to disrupt the new flow of capital. The picture that emerges is one where the unresolved complexities of the conflict and lived experience are diminished by a heritage industry and neoliberal momentum. Legg hopes to amplify a dissonance in the light of this:
…by focusing on capitalism’s intersection with ethnic-national difference my aim is not to dismantle the idea of culture or communal identities, but rather to demonstrate the ways in which those identities are more restless, in process, and, crucially, less amenable to the dictates of a capitalist state. [p.17]
The goal is to find alternative modes of being within these communal identities. Legg unearths fragments from found experience and political turmoil and shapes them into matter of critical dissent. The notion of a critical dissensus is key to Legg’s form of resistance, for whom, an “agonistic recuperation of disagreement” becomes the means to begin to imagine otherwise.
It is certainly a project not lacking ambition. Legg’s claim to “recalibrate our understanding of Northern Ireland history” (p.3) may well be answering academic demands for knowledge creation (I am presuming much of this work was produced for a PhD). It also points to a clear ambition to freshen things by applying contemporary theory to material and historical circumstances of the conflict. Interpretative flights of fancy ensue and these combine to become a kind of gambit upon which Legg’s claims for freshness rest. In the spirit of critical dissensus, it seems appropriate to consider its merits and shortfalls whilst not losing sight of the fact that this book is a fascinating read.
So where can this freshness be found? The chapter, which explores cultural reactions to the planning, development and demise of the new city of Craigavon is as good a place to start as any. Legg finds in the photography of Victor Sloan and the female writing group, the Dolly Mixtures, hints of an inclusive community spirit and resistance at odds with top-down planning and capitalist development. This theme is developed further in the chapter on photography. Here, Legg goes to some effort to uncover constructive elements within sectarianism. He is wary of multiple attempts to move beyond sectarianism which have had a destructive effect upon the “enabling and protective bonds of community”. John Duncan’s Bonfire series (2008) is seen to capture this tension. Shore Road frames a loyalist bonfire which looks somewhat out of place on the pavement, presumably as priority has been granted by local authority to the free flow of traffic and the ‘creeping incursion’ of new commercial development (Lidl). Capitalist and sectarian spectacle are vying for spatial control, with the former retaining the upper hand. Duncan’s work is valued by Legg for revealing the “complex relationship between people and place that might stymie capitalism’s alienating and constrictive imperatives”(p.104). Likewise, King George V Playing Fields is read in the following terms:
Buried within these symbols of hate and destruction, Duncan’s image seems to say, there is a radical politics and a popular poetics that speak of capitalism’s undoing. [p.115-116]
Legg continues to build this momentum, insisting on the value of the sectarian impulse despite its (obvious) proclivity for violence. The text in Willie Doherty’s work, The Blue Skies of Ulster (1986), is seen to “provide a clear and comforting foothold within a landscape that is otherwise misted over in political confusion” (p.112). There is no suggestion the image of a (possible) border shrouded in mist seeks to undercut the vacuity of such political rhetoric; a reading, moreover, which would be consistent with Doherty’s output. The works for Duncan and Doherty, for all their critical distance and mute ambivalence, are rendered harrowingly prescriptive.
The blanket protests and hunger strikes are also read in terms of how their radical potential is subsumed within a banal post-conflict reimagining of the Troubles. Here, republican mythology and the language of economic redevelopment bind to form a constricting historical narrative:
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the H-Blocks represented many things: A potential endpoint for capitalism, a volatile interface between modern and non-modern social formations, a paradoxical site of unthinkable squalor and ecstatic conviviality, a place of incomprehensible detritus on the margins of the Troubles. Today, what remains of the prison is history at its most banal: a blank space for multinational investment, a misunderstood location for touristic pleasure, a myopic shrine to terror. [p.153]
While one might baulk at the exaggerated reach (“a potential endpoint to capitalism”!), Legg does recapture the sheer instability of events, recognizing a raw vitality and ambition in prisoners’ voices (“The outside was scared to make the logical extension of the struggle we were in”). Legg recognizes how an ‘alternative communal identity’ jars with an eventual trajectory that would lead Sinn Fein into mainstream politics and eventually to the GFA. Likewise, cinematic representations of H-Block protests (Some Mother’s Son (1996), H3 (2001) and Hunger (2008)) are read in terms of promising radical potentials which are structurally subsumed by republican mythology and the logic of the Peace Process.
If there is unease with these readings, it lies in how Legg repeatedly looks to a loyalist and republican core as a site of radical renewal. There is an awkward similarity between the structure of Legg’s book and the GFA’s consociational structure he is so critical of. Chapters drift from the Unionist government’s town planning in the 1960s to a growing apathy of an emerging Protestant middle class in Belfast’s suburbs, from (loyalist) sectarian landscapes to the impact of internment and resistance to it from within nationalist/republican communities, and then to considering the legacy of H-Block protests. The conclusion finally breaks with the two traditions model when the local punk scene in the late 1970s is considered. It arrives as a kind of rude awakening and possible recognition on Legg’s part of the structural limits of his book: that there are other sites of resistance other than those he has dwelt on.
Actually, it is not so much that punk’s revolt against boredom stands in contrast to loyalist and republican protests, it is their shared terrain which is illuminating. Legg sees a primal rage in each as a virtue. This may well explain how ‘capitalism’ remains a steady feature throughout the book as that with which to rage against. Rarely is there prolonged attention given to varying forms of governance lying beneath the term – whether these be social democratic models or the more virulent neoliberal strains characterizing the contemporary moment. ‘Capitalism’, for Legg, is simply monstrous. It is to be attacked, never negotiated with. To engage with its civic structures would demand compromise and accommodation. Even worse, it might even demand consensus! In short, what appears to haunt Legg most of all is the gaping chasm between the lofty autonomy of literary criticism and the grit of praxis. At too many points, Legg’s call for emancipation rings hollow if not a tad misguided.
These tensions are best born out in Legg’s discussion of Derek Mahon’s poetry. Legg uncovers a critical edge at the heart of Mahon’s work. Mahon’s plight is characterized as an apathy shared with a Protestant middle class which had emerged in post-war Northern Ireland, typified by the growth of new suburbs such as Glengormley. Political indifference was (and is) prone to the push and pull of unionist hegemony and the lure of accumulating wealth. Articulating the guilt, anxiety and restlessness under such conditions, Legg finds a “salvific potential” (p.76) in Mahon’s “violent poetics” (p.65), seeing a desire to move his reader, “from an indulgent individualism to a critical class-consciousness” (p.76). Legg’s eagerness to reclaim a critical edge from the irresolution at the heart of Mahon’s poetry stands in contrast to an inertia which marks Mahon’s work. Mahon’s work is compelling for its sense of entrapment within a tragedy he feels guiltily complicit. This is matched by a sense of impotence. If anything, Mahon’s laden humour is redemptive in its good spirit. There is little else in terms of radical emancipation: ‘all farts in a biscuit tin’ indeed.
The gap between Legg’s theoretical ambitions and the material conditions of history and contemporary culture is also born out in his work on Mahon. The push and pull of unionist hegemony was, for Legg, precisely against the rise of the Northern Irish Labour Party as a significant force in Belfast by the late 1950s and the momentum of civil rights in the late 1960s. Mahon was not part of this momentum and Legg picks up on its sense of otherness for Mahon. In fact, the legacy of the civil rights is seriously overlooked in this and other contexts in the book. Legg recognizes the claim for an “ethnically neutral jural subject” in civil rights protests. Yet in the context of Northern Ireland, the civil rights protests are summarily dismissed as ‘marches’ linked to “territorial claims” and led to the “creation of militant areas”. The civil rights protests simply “heralded the Northern Irish Troubles” and is effectively othered for Legg. That this should be the case is surprising, particularly given his interest in thinkers such as Barthes, Bourdieu, Deleuze, Foucault and Rancière who were heavily engaged with the legacy of May ’68 and the wider cultural and political upheavals of the era. One would think a heady mix of grouping such as NICRA, the People’s Democracy, the Young Socialist Alliance and the Labour Clubs and the degree to which they would challenge a sectarian state would stimulate some degree of intrigue and examination on Legg’s part.
The gap between Legg’s theoretical stance and messier material circumstance/engagement is a recurrent feature. It does not sit well with the book’s structural reproduction of the consociational model of the two traditions. I have relished a history and culture born from an acute awareness of, but a critical indifference to, this model of thought. To take a few local journals as examples, I think of the origins of Circa in Belfast in the 1980s and the kind of discourse it fostered as a matter of engaging with a conflicted society. I think of Fortnight magazine. I think of Source Photographic Review. I think, for some god forsaken reason, of the Satan edition of The Vacuum in 2004 which riled the bible-bashers to such an extent their Belfast City Council funding was to be cut but for a (more than curious) apology from an open-topped bus. I could expand to include the visual arts scene or the music scene in all their diversity over the years. All are at their best with a sharp critical edge; with a sense of refusal, if not belligerence. Civil disobedience insists on a respect for mutuality as the basis of the social contract. Hannah Arendt once argued that dissent implies consent, hence the crucial role for civil disobedience in holding failed institutions to account. I am hoping an important feature of the conflict is coming into view here. It is one overshadowed in Legg’s work. This is at once historical, in the sense of the energies underpinning the Civil Rights Movement, and contemporary, in the sense that these energies can be seen to have present form.
I say this whilst recognizing the value of Legg’s contribution. There’s a freshness to the work on Craigavon. There is intensity in the reading of Mahon’s poetry. Legg’s critique of how culture has been abused in the name of economic regeneration is much needed. In short, this is a compelling read and seeks to generate serious critical dialogue. There is good material to build on as we progress further into new dark times. I am thinking here of Legg’s chapter on the logic of control society and the role internment played in helping shape this into being. I cannot help but think of Brexit and the dramatic shifts this is causing. I cannot help but think of how Legg is going to handle this.