The Joyce of History

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Once in a while you come across a piece of writing that knocks your socks off. Sean O’Hagan’s Banger and Machinations is one such article which appeared in Sunday’s Guardian. Let me be honset that it probably will not do for you what it did for me. See, it hit my three sweet academic spots: history, memory and culture. O’Hagan bemoans the commercialization of Joyce, of Ulysses, and the centenary of Bloomsday – the fictional day Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom spend crisscrossing Dublin. He is appalled that Denny’s has a Bloomsday breakfast of sausages and hash-browns (no mutton kidneys), a Molly Bloom lookalike contest, a Bike Rally. It is another example, he states, of a trend that recasts Irish history and culture as a brand:

In the last decade or so, that process has rebranded and remarketed, among other things, the Great Famine of the 1840s through the construction of a 200 acre faux-realistic famine theme park in west Limerick, as well as famine-themed fancy-dress parades, and what the Cashel Heritage Society described as ‘a colourful Pageant of Music, Song, Dance and Drama’ to highlight ‘this dark period in our past’.
The most successful faux-Irish phenomenon of recent times has been Riverdance, Irish-American Michael Flatley’s transformation of traditional Irish dancing into a world-wide all-singing, all-pouting stage show. From the user-friendly trad-pop of the Corrs to the rise of the branded Irish theme pub, the marketing of Disneyfied images of Irishness is big business worldwide. In short, Irish history, for so long an open wound, and Irish culture, for so long an ideological battleground, have both become unique selling points in the overall rebranding of what might be called New Ireland Inc.

And in that commercial cess-pool O’Hagan now finds that old curmudgeon and disenchanted son of Ireland, James Joyce. Ulysses, a.k.a TaiBo for Intellectuals, is stripped of its complexity, its sex, its confusion and re-packaged as “authentic” Irish – next to the Irish Springs Soap, and the St. Patrick’s Day pitcher of green beer. Sure, there is some snobbish crying in the article by academics. But, a central question looms large: Who owns history (and, thence, claim its retellings)? Is it the government? The overly enthusiastic mayor of Dublin in this case. Is it corporations like Disney? Is it the historians who are the true owners of history? The answer to that question determines whether you view Bloomsday as gross heresy or the grand celeberation for the masses.

And that answer, my friends, is a doozy to figure out. Nation-States, high off their victory against colonialism, invented traditions. Pasts were reconstructed, remodeled and redeployed to create citizenry and brotherhood. We know that. Nothing exciting there, anymore. Politicians and political bodies do this every day, to this day. Anyone unfortunate enough to be in America over the last week when an unburied dead president was sanitized and canonized can testify to the impulse of a Nation-State to create instant History.

But they are not the only ones imagining a distant past. Intersecting the domain of history is memory. In my work, I have come to define memory as the presence of history in the popular imagination. The pieces of a historical narrative that are readily available to the participants of a particular culture (or subculture) without the aid of a hegemonic master narrative. If history is tied to time, memory is tied to space. It collapses time, cause and effect may be separated by centuries. It conflates agency. The actors, the heroes bring transformations validating the present. In essence, social memory, a shorthand of events and figures, creates within a culture another temporally and spatially unique history. While the history of Joyce in Ireland may speak contrary to Bloomsday, the memory of Joyce in Ireland is both living and malleable.

There are many examples one can cite. The popularity of St. Patrick’s Day in America gets transplanted back to Ireland. The memory of Civil Rights struggle persists without any incentive from the Nation-State. The Civil War lives on in Re-enactments and the flag issue. Texas knows not what to do with the Alamo but forgetting it is not an option. Do you remember the 60s taught in school books? I bet you’d be wrong?. Remember the 50s shown on TV? America was white, hard-working, pure, honest. Right? What about the 40s? In all that D-Day hoopla (btw, did anyone besides Americans land on Normandy?) did anyone remember Japanese internment camps? German POW camps in Texas?

I have talked to many who know the history of CIA introducing crack in the ghettos. Saddam and his involvement with Bush Sr. and the CIA is another history residing in smokey, drunken conversations. So where do these “other” histories come from? Who remembers them? How do they exist without governments and corporations supporting their dissemination and propogation? That question lies heaviest on those who call themselves historians. We have to come out of our ivory towers (i HATE that term) and get all plebeian and sheeit. We have to remember Joyce in all his self-hatin’, sweaty sex glory. And we, then, have to seed that history like a, well, meme. I want to write popular dime books on history of Islam. I want to have mass-produced tales from the south asian past. History is not cheap but it’s absence is extremely expensive. Otherwise, Disney owns history. All of it. Or else, Uncle Sam does [check who wrote the new forward there].

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