[Below Julie McCormick Weng, a graduate student affiliate in English and recipient of a Unit for Criticism travel grant, writes about her experience at a conference hosted by Notre Dame University that explored the relationship between hybridity and Irish Studies.]
On Hybrid Irelands: At Culture’s Edge–A Critique of Hybridity
Written by Julie McCormick Weng (English)
I had never attended a graduate student conference before, but my recent experience at Notre Dame University’s “Hybrid Irelands: At Culture’s Edge” conference may have me addicted to them. This three-day conference, held March 29-31, featured keynote lectures from three notable scholars: Terry Eagleton, Claire Wills, and David Lloyd.
The conference theme of hybridity first originated in biological studies, referring to mixtures in the body, but became popular in linguistics and postcolonial theory in the 1980s and 1990s. Postcolonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha have used the term to expand notions of race and culture, noting ways these concepts affect identity formation and power relations—particularly imperial power structures. Mikhail Bakhtin also appropriated the idea to relate to his theory of polyphony (or many voices) in texts. In current critical developments, hybridity often describes reciprocal and mingling cultural exchanges as an effect of globalism.
This turn in theories of hybridity/ies constituted Eagleton’s opening keynote remarks. His broadly-themed lecture, sensationally titled “Against Hybridity,” opened with a claim that current criticism largely looks to the term “hybrid” as an affirmation. Hybridity carries a positive charge. It signals inclusivity, bringing what is marginal into the center and into a place of fuller meaning. Hybridity also functions as a goal for many practicing scholars. Literary scholars, for example, aim to enact hybridity through interdisciplinary practices in research and learning.
Papers at the conference represented hybrid disciplinary practices and/or revealed hybrid connections in content. My own paper, “John Eglinton: An Irish Futurist,” studied Eglinton’s 1898 essays, which detail his hope for technological objects to inspire literature in the forthcoming Irish Revival. I showed how his writings anticipate practices in Italian futurism. These practices form cosmopolitan material connections or “cosmo-material connections” as I call them, with inventions representing the materiality of modernity through the common user’s experience of them. A paper on another panel, Flicka Small’s “The Multiple Facets of Leopold Bloom,” exposed James Joyce’s inventive use of food to metaphorize deviancy through the subversion of food practices. On another panel, Jeremy Magnan’s paper, “‘Representations of the Irish Traveler in Horror,’ or Travelers, Miscegeny, and Cows, Oh My!” treated the doomed fate of the Irish traveler figure in contemporary Irish horror films. All of these papers pursued a productive way to integrate practices of hybridity into our scholarship.
Eagleton, however, challenged our instincts to affirm all things hybrid. Not everyone and every group should be included, he argued. Neo-Nazis, for example, should remain on the margins along with pedophiles and a few other extreme preferences and values. Hybridity, in this light, is not always good or always an affirmative—or even ethical—practice. This challenge affected the way I considered my own project, highlighting specific questions my research project overlooked and yet begged. What limitations and problems might Eglinton’s form of cosmomaterialism pose? What are the stakes of representing international connections in the Irish Literary Revival as opposed to national connections? Eagleton’s argument reminded the audience that we must approach hybridity as scholars approach any text or new concept—critically.
David Lloyd opened his lecture, “‘To Live Surrounded by a White Song’ or The Sublimation of Race in Experiment: On the Margins of Susan Howe,” with another challenge to hybridity. He commended the conference organizers’ decision to pluralize “Irelands” in the conference theme but recommended additional pluralization. Instead of “At Culture’s Edge,” Lloyd argued for a shift in the apostrophe so that the subtitle would read, “At Cultures’ Edges.” In pluralizing both “cultures” and “edges,” Lloyd pointed out our need to be aware of the many kinds and forms of plurality. In doing so he opened up the discussion of Irish texts and histories for new layers of meaning and modes of representations.
Unusual for a graduate student conference, the list of events included creative writing workshops, poetry readings from Paula Meehan and Irish language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and a well-attended professor round-table titled “On the Future of Irish Studies.” Led by Spurgeon “Skip” Thompson, this panel included Nathan Wallace, Katie Kane Skyping in from Montana, Katie Conrad, Heather Edwards, and Michael Malouf. The discussion included Thompson’s argument that modern and contemporary studies dominate Irish scholarship. He analyzed this trend statistically by comparing three Irish studies conferences: Notre Dame University’s 1995 graduate conference (which he attended), its 2012 conference, and this year’s American Conference for Irish Studies. Thompson broke down the paper topics under subject headings such as “James Joyce,” “modern literature,” “cultural studies,” “film,” and “nineteenth-century literature” and tallied the number of papers given in each subject. For example, 60 papers in 2012 concerned modern and contemporary literature compared to ten nineteenth-century and five eighteenth-century presentations. This exercise traced shifting trends in scholarship and brought to light the dominance of twentieth-century (and twenty-first-century) studies. Notably, Thompson excluded subject headings such as gender and women’s studies as well as genre focal points such as poetry, drama, and prose. Would the addition of these categories change the picture of the represented topics? Also, my own personal observation noted that not a single paper was given on the work of Samuel Beckett.What does this say about his current place in twentieth-century literature and Irish studies?
In this round-table, Katie Conrad shared her frank beliefs on the job market for students working in Irish studies and other fields considered “marginal.” While some universities might deem Irish studies to be marginal, or perhaps unnecessary expertise, Conrad boasted that a strength for Irish studies candidates lies in the fact that their work is already “hybrid.” Universities look to maximize their investments by hiring faculty able to work in more than one field. As an Irish studies scholar, Conrad was able to “market” herself as a British modernist who also works in women’s and gender studies and queer theory. Unsurprisingly, Conrad’s discussion of job prospects sparked many questions and comments from graduate students.
Clair Wills’s provocative keynote lecture, “‘Turning a shade darker’: Hybridity, Race, and Population” noted, among many claims, the surprising language in 1950s Ireland surrounding Irish emigration. Her primary documents presented a negative mode of Irish self-representation, namely, the widespread belief that Ireland had lost the “robust” and vital part of the population to emigration, leaving behind a weaker and less skilled population. Her presentation sought connections between the dialogue about Ireland’s lack and loss, emigration, and constructions of Irish identity.
On the final day of the conference during a panel of closing remarks by keynote speakers and poets, she offered a final challenge toward the term “hybrid,” suggesting that we might look for a new term. In an off-the-cuff manner, she recommended “fusion” as a possible replacement though noted its complicated connection to nuclear weapons. Fusion, she argued, allows for creative forces to come together in a new way. This was demonstrated on a music panel she attended on the final day of the conference where Deirdre Ní Chonghaile’s paper, “‘Gabh’ Tí Phlunkett más maith leat country’: Tradition and Hybridization in Contemporary Conamara Music,” explored the influence of American country music on Western Irish folk music from the Gaeltacht. The fusion of musical styles and methods of storytelling illuminated new ways Irish music continues to evolve.
The conference concluded, as do all Irish studies conferences, with dinner and a visit to the pub, accompanied by Irish music and song. To everyone’s surprise, Terry Eagleton sang renditions of traditional Irish tunes to his own original and humorous lyrics—songs about dear “Willie Yeats” and “Jimmy Joyce.” Following Eagleton, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill gifted us with an Irish language folk song. Attendee Aisling Cormack impressed the group by singing and fiddling. For a weekend themed after hybridity, it was, indeed, a hybrid and memorable way to end the conference.