A Lumper in the Throat: Famine and Object a

Author: Macy Todd (University of Buffalo)

Psychoanalysis is often hailed as the advent of the notion of foundational trauma: an originary burl in the texture of subjectivity that produces symptoms in the present. In this context, were one to produce a psychoanalysis of Ireland, it would be tempting to settle on the Great Famine as this foundational trauma; marked by Kevin Whelan as the “loss so absolute as to be beyond redemption,”[1] the Famine is further the historical event that incited much of what we now recognize as the Irish diaspora. Communities of Irish ancestry living today in North America, South America, Britain, and Australia can trace their current forms of life to the events that transpired in the Great Hunger. Given these literal ties in the present to the past event, it makes sense to assume parallel psychic ties are knotted around it as well.


The work of Sigmund Freud, however, suggests that such a unique primary trauma is at best a fantasy. Freud maintains that psychoanalysis requires “giv[ing] up the attempt to bring a particular moment or problem into focus”[2] in order to put emphasis on “overcom[ing] resistances due to repression.”[3] With this in mind, the present essay addresses the Great Famine of 1845-1852 not as a kernel of traumatic truth lingering in the recesses of a collective Irish national unconscious, but as a signifying function in the present that produces certain symptoms. By accepting these symptoms in their context, I propose a reading of the Famine that takes into account its relations to temporality, memory, and aesthetics. If the question of why the Famine persists in the present is not by this method thoroughly answered, there will at least be a new ground on which to continue working through the persistence of the Great Hunger in contemporary Irish culture.


Part I: Famine In and Out of Time

Famine in Ireland is both alive and dead, both a vivid and material presence in the lives of its citizens, and an ossified relic of an imagined past. This is true in one concrete sense thanks to the recent international policies of austerity encouraged by the European Union. As a direct result of the decrease in social services, many Irish citizens have had to experience hunger, as a recent report published by Ireland’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) attests. According to the CSO, over a quarter of Irish citizens endured a state of “enforced deprivation” in the year 2012, “enforced deprivation” being a state in which access to certain materials is directly prevented by government policy.[4] The same report claims that a quarter of a million people in Ireland regularly go without proper nourishment, a considerable increase when compared to pre-austerity figures. Policies coming from abroad that cause the Irish to go hungry are a familiar theme in Irish history, thanks in part to the vibrancy of the concept of famine in Ireland.


This concept had a similar vibrancy at the time of the Great Famine. Many scholars have noted that when the potato crop failed in 1845, the Irish were inured to the prospect of hunger, and particularly the kind of mass death associated with the absence of the potato. Cormac Ó Gráda calls the Great Famine the event that “brought the major era of famines in Ireland to a brutal end.”[5] In a seminal essay on the Irish famine of 1740-41 titled “The Other Great Irish Famine,” David Dickson argues that this earlier famine was “at least as severe and probably rather more so than the Great Famine itself.”[6] Ireland’s present relation to famine must therefore be understood not only through its past famines but also through an understanding that every past experience of famine would have been conditioned as well by a relation to other past famines. Ireland’s colonial and pre-colonial history is shaped by the experience, and the repeated experience, of famine.


Repetition, however, is a constituent part of famine in general: nations and communities that experience food shortage often experience another, as is the case in present-day Ethiopia and Somalia.[7] Likewise, Ireland is not the only country to experience the ravaging effects of famine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many European nations suffered food shortages through this period on account of war, disease, and weather. Iceland, for example, lost twenty-five percent of its population between 1783 and 1784 due to the Laki eruption and its effects on the vegetation.[8]


Yet, critically, it is partly vegetation that sets Ireland apart; Dickson argues for the importance of the potato as a distinguishing characteristic of Irish famines. Ireland, in his telling, managed to escape some of the severity of other European famines in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries because its citizens cultivated the potato as a kind of emergency provision in the case of a grain shortage. The severe cold of 1739 and ‘40 reduced the potato crop to such an extent that what followed was “the first great potato-centred crisis in Irish history.”[9] In some senses, the emotional connection to the potato is part of what makes famine unique in an Irish context. L. A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, in their article “A Non-Famine History of Ireland,” note two things that make the Irish experience of hunger before the twentieth century distinct from other European famines: first, the role the potato played in the material existence of Irish peasants, and second, the fact that famines persisted in Ireland beyond the time they became rare throughout the western world. This second point is crucial because it was uneven development in particular that contributed to the production of the Great Famine. Clarkson and Crawford note that Ireland was not well-integrated into English market practices, as “pigs were potatoes capitalised: they were fattened on potatoes and sold for the money needed to pay the rent and the few articles of clothing and furniture essential for life.”[10] British government officials trusted a version of the marketplace that simply did not exist within Ireland, and as such, the relief they expected to come from capital was actually rotting in the earth:


Potato eaters were poorly integrated into the market. They were frequently paid, not in money, but by the use of land on which to grow potatoes. For many of them their source of cash was the pig; but the pig too was a casualty of the Famine. If they were able to find paid employment their wages were not enough to pay for the food they and their families needed. The market-based ideas of political economy prevalent in mid-nineteenth-century Britain could not save the starving people of Ireland.[11]


Due to the zealous faith of Britain in the panacean qualities of the market, Ireland experienced the kind of devastating famine common to previous centuries long after other European nations had ceased to fear such rampant food shortage. In essence, famine in Ireland—connected as it is so intimately to its one iteration from 1845-51—is essentially and unavoidably atavistic. The crucial dialectic in understanding Irish famine is between the past and the present, between the event and the event it is repeating or prolonging. In this sense, Irish famine has always been both alive and dead, both explicitly material and present while simultaneously fantasmatic and deceased.


While Ireland’s Great Famine was in a certain regard late, in that it mirrored earlier, obsolete forms of suffering, it was in another sense very early. Today, communities around the world experience famine because of the discontents of market practices. At the time of this essay’s composition, a famine was continuing to progress in the Thar district of Pakistan, claiming (as the Great Hunger did in Ireland) the lives of children and the elderly among a largely agrarian population. In an article titled, “Willful Neglect of Government Caused a Critical Famine in Mithi,” the author argues that Pakistani officials are content to allow the market to rectify a situation that requires more intense financial intervention. After noting that “the famine was not created by natural factors but it is clear that it was the willful negligence of Sindh government,” the article reports government officials “pursuing a long-term strategy involving development of the entire district, rather than simply providing emergency aid.”[12] In short, this means the prevention of death in the present has been delayed in order to focus on the development of markets in the future. During the Great Famine, this decision meant that government aid was available for certain land-improvement projects but not for immediate aid to the hungry. The official instructions to relief committees, circulated by the British government in 1847, contain a narrative of distrust of the peasantry parallel to the bald desire for projects of improvement.[13] There is a particular emphasis on land drainage—a process wherein the Irish bog can be prepared for further agricultural production and thus exposure to British markets. The instructions include a section lauding landlords “who, by farm drainage […] enable their tenants to meet the present emergency without an appeal to the public assistance.”[14] Farm drainage, however, did not alleviate the suffering of the famine—it is little more than a gesture toward relief without any true assistance. Humanitarian aid, both in the Ireland of the nineteenth century and the Pakistan of today, takes a back seat to the project of modernization.


Therefore, the Great Famine in Ireland was, as I have shown, both early and late—both beyond its expected time and a harbinger of future forms of famine. This sense of combined futurity and atavism serves to highlight the degree to which the commemoration of the Great Famine in modern-day Ireland is characterized by a passionate and living attachment to an event that is long passed from the earth. The recent turmoil over the planned production of a sitcom based on the Great Famine is an excellent illustration of the event’s persistence in the present. After reading one of Hugh Travers’s scripts, Channel 4 offered the Irish screenwriter an opportunity to design a television show of his choosing. Travers came up with Hungry, a famine-set comedy that he described, in a very brief interview with the Irish Times, as keeping in kind with the fact that “Ireland has always been good at black humour.”[15] Almost immediately there was public outrage with the show. A petition posted at Change.org by Fairlie Gordon collected over 30,000 signatures in a matter of a few weeks. Gordon notes: “Famine and genocide are serious issues, and should be treated as such.”[16] Niall O’Dowd is quoted in an article from the BBC as opposing Hungry based on the reasoning that certain forms of comedy are dangerous: “there are limits to comedy. You can’t shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre as a joke. The famine is not a topic for laughter.”[17] In response to these claims, many have supported Travers’s rights to produce the sitcom. Irish comedian Dave McSavage expressed his feeling that comedy should never be restrained in any way: “There’s no subject off limits. That’s like saying history is off limits.”[18] While the subject of what is or is not appropriate matter for comedy is nothing new, the argument being so personal and impassioned a century and a half after the event in question is surprising. One would be hard pressed to imagine a similar furor over a farcical adaptation of the events surrounding the figure of Jack the Ripper. In fact, in 1994, the film Deadly Advice satirizes Jack the Ripper by imagining him as an unassuming hairdresser. In 2011, a London, Ontario baseball team renamed themselves “The Rippers” and incorporated a shadowy figure in a top hat into their merchandise. Unlike the Great Famine, other past events seem to lose some of their emotional potency as they move further into the past.


Travers himself has constantly invoked this concept in his defense, repeating a single line multiple times to different news organizations in support of his concept: “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.”[19] His basic argument seems to be that given the distance between the present day and the events of the Great Hunger, it should be not only an acceptable subject for comedy but also a verdant comedy orchard ripe for the harvest. While his comedy-equation mantra is a cliché, originally attributed to Steve Allen, it also presses against the definitive characteristic of the Great Famine in contemporary discourse: it is in a very real sense out of time.[20] Neither isolated in the past nor reducible to present-day emotions, the Great Famine persists in a kind of suspended animation.


The field of memory studies has explored this particular atavistic manifestation of tragedy among a cultural group with no true lived experience of the event. Marianne Hirsch, in her seminal essay “The Generation of Postmemory,” presents the concept of “temporal delay” as a key aspect of the transmission of traumatic events.[21] For Hirsch, there are experiences deeply connected to genealogical transmission that go beyond the sensorial and the empirical—these experiences are like memory and yet connect to no actual lived experience. In her example, the generation that came after Holocaust survivors has a deeper connection to the trauma experienced by their parents than the word “history” could imply. Therefore, “postmemory”: the cathexsis of a particular historical event the emotional importance of which verges on personal recollection. Hirsch clarifies the importance of this term:


Postmemorial work […] strives to reactivate and reembody more distant social/national and archival/cultural memorial structures by reinvesting them with resonant individual and familial forms of mediation and aesthetic expression. Thus less-directly affected participants can become engaged in the generation of postmemory, which can thus persist even after all participants and even their familial descendants are gone.[22]


In this view, the Irish relationship to the Famine is one of reinvigoration, as people with familial ties to the traumatic event attempt to make present the temporally and culturally distant event of the Hunger. This mode of engagement strikes through traditional understandings of consecutive temporality: events that took place outside the timeline of one’s own life can assume the importance of distinguishing life events, on a personal and group identificatory level. The persistence of the Famine into contemporary life would therefore not be an undead lingering but a lived empirical presence in individual lives.


However, before it can be said that the issue of the binary of atavism and prematurity at the heart of the Great Famine has been resolved by the concept of postmemory, there are three issues with Hirsch’s theory that need to be addressed: 1) Postmemory is a phenomenon attached to the experience of photography, and the Great Famine does not exist at all in photographs, with barely any contemporary illustrations to provide even a simulacrum of the photographic.[23] 2) Hirsch uses verbs such as “reactivate” and “reembody” to describe the concept of postmemory, yet it just as easily could be described as a process of reanimation or undeath. To reembody could be the providential act of bringing something transcendent into corporeal matter, or it could be the form of rebirth experienced by, say, Dracula’s victims. 3) There is no accounting for the desire of postmemory generations in Hirsch’s account. Examining the persistence of the Famine means asking to what extent the experience of prolonging a traumatic event depends on a collective desire for its continuation.[24]


Because these concerns deal with desire, memory, and trauma, the work of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan is well-suited to address them. In contrast to the role that Hirsch gives photography in establishing a connection to past familial events, Lacan identifies the image as an illusory and yet key component of the subject’s ability to historicize him or herself in the present. In his essay “Beyond the Reality Principle,” Lacan first notes that the image, although it does in one sense function as an “illusion,” in a far more important sense functions as “the stamp of an impression or the organization by an idea” that amounts to “the intuitive form of the object.”[25] Lacan is clear that neither function of the image nullifies the other; the image is always both an illusion and the mark on the basis of which one is able to organize thought. To demonstrate the illusory and foundational role of the image, Lacan describes the scene of analysis wherein a subject produces an image to serve as a simulacrum of the analyst. Although this image is inherently a fantasy, it also without fail serves as the cornerstone of the subject’s being. The analyst listens as the analysand produces


pure narratives that appear “outside the subject” that the subject now throws into the stream of his discourse: unintended events and fragments of the memories that constitute his history, and, among the most disjointed, those that surface from his childhood. But we see that among these, the analyst stumbles anew upon the very image that […] he has awakened in the subject. […] He certainly knew that this image was of human essence, since it provokes passion and oppresses, but it hid its characteristics from his gaze.[26]


Much like Hirsch imagines the role of photography, this image is a grounding form—an organizing trope—around which the subject is able to produce the essential dramas of his or her life. Lacan notes that the image that thus emerges inevitably constitutes a “family portrait” including “the image of the father or of the mother, […] the image of a brother [or] a rival sibling”[27]—similar to Hirsch’s description of “family photos” that “tend to diminish distance, bridge separation, and facilitate identification and affiliation.”[28] Yet unlike the photograph, the image in Lacan’s telling need not have any connection to the objective present or past. The image does not, in the analytic scene, provide access to a reality that is external and comes to bear on the subject. Rather, the image is so deeply internal to the subject—providing as it does the guide by which the subject is formed—that it often presents itself as if it were external. This Lacanian image is often called by another name: fundamental fantasy.


To her credit, Hirsch recognizes the possibility that the photograph and its role in postmemory could be less grounded in fact than it would at first seem. She notes that, slipping into a Freudian terminology, photographs can “become screens—spaces of projection and approximation and of protection.”[29] Yet there remains even in this distinction a binary between the true family memory and the projected one that betrays the fact that fundamental fantasy is no less real because it is imagined. Bruce Fink, in his case study “The Freud Man and the Fundamental Fantasy,” gives a concise and enlightening definition of the indistinguishability of fantasy and reality. Fink’s analysand—a graduate student with a firm identification with the figure of Sigmund Freud—enters analysis because he cannot complete the work necessary for his degree. Through analysis, an image began to focus—an image of the Freud Man and his mother facing one another. Fink describes how this image functions and what its form belies:


In the relatively static image that repeatedly came to him […] there was no real action, but merely a stance, an oppositional positioning between the two. A certain phrase—like “I am confronting my mother”—would come to mind, often accompanied by such an image, and that is all. The sentiments of each party remained unknown […]. This kind of standoff seemed to characterize virtually all of the analysand’s adult relationships.[30]


Here at the end of Fink’s passage we have bridged the gap between the illusory image of the fundamental fantasy and what we otherwise call “reality.” Although the image of the Freud Man and his mother is based on pure fantasy, it nonetheless provides the structure through which he approaches all of his friends and relatives.


In other words, the unreal images we harbor within our unconscious grant us our ability to act and interact in the space of reality. Lacan, in Seminar XIV: The Logic of Fantasy, describes these images as of the utmost necessity: there is no way other than fantasy to approach reality. In response to the question, “What carries the fantasy?’ he answers, “What carries the fantasy has two names which concern one and the same substance, if you do not mind reducing this term to this function of surface.” [31] The two names of this surface are “desire and reality.” By referring to reality as a surface that is indistinguishable from desire, and by further making plain that the only mode of access to this surface is through the fantasy that frames or dresses it, Lacan repositions our understanding of the objective and the imagined. The point is neither to say that reality is all a dream and therefore unimportant, nor is it to suggest that only pure imagination reigns. Instead, Lacan insists on a reckoning of fantasy and reality as interconnected: fantasy is the only mode of access one has to reality, and reality is therefore always already tempered by the fantasy one uses to frame it.


Photography, therefore, is not necessary to the process of keeping a traumatic event alive; the power of an image is not dependent on its ability to reproduce a seemingly objective tableau, but rather in its ability to manifest a series of points that have definitive relations to one another. This is why, although many different forms of Famine memorial exist, a certain set of guidelines formulates the basic coordinates of each. Looking at a number of examples such as Rowan Gillespie’s Custom House Quays sculpture, his Éireann Quay Famine sculpture in Toronto, Edward Delaney’s St. Stephen’s Green Memorial, John Behan’s Clew Bay figures, and Robert Shure’s Famine memorial in Boston, several striking similarities emerge (see figures 1a-1d).

Fig. 1a -- Edward Delaney's St. Stephen's Green Memorial

First, the figures depicted are always in a group roughly approximating a family unit—usually a father figure, a mother figure, and a son. Their gaunt outlines, undoubtedly representing their starvation, are usually elongated. Additionally, the figures are either caught in tentative motion, their destination unclear, or they are huddled together (or both, as is the case in Shure’s Boston memorial). From these examples it is clear something like a fundamental fantasy exists in relation to the Irish famine, even without a photograph: every mode of producing a material image of the Hunger repeats a specific set of coordinates.


Fink’s example above mirrors this repetition in Great Famine memorial expressions, as the Freud Man attempts to reproduce his fundamental fantasy in his adult relationships. This brings us to the second concern provoked by Hirsch’s article: what is the difference between the hope of reactivation and the horror of reanimation when it

Fig. 1b -- Robert Shure's Boston Memorial

comes to past events in the present? The Freud Man is, in a sense, captive to his fundamental fantasy; his adult relationships are preordained to repeat its essential pattern. It is possible to see not only how this pattern develops in the concept of postmemory, but specifically how an image—when functioning as a fundamental fantasy—can begin to engender the repetition of a formal situation.


This repetition goes counter to any sequential notion of temporality; in the example cited above—Travers’s famine sitcom—comedy does not equal tragedy plus time because the time at issue is disrupted by the repetition produced by the fundamental fantasy of the Famine. Rather than fading into a remnant of the past, the Famine instead remains as a means of accessing reality. Reactivating and reanimating the past are both imprecise when it comes to the persistence of the Famine; rather, it exists in a mode of atemporal presence. It neither matures nor recedes from reality precisely because it is the mode of dress that reality wears. Without it, lived reality would (at least momentarily) cease to make sense.


Here the third concern above can be properly addressed: how does desire for memory affect our understanding of the concept of postmemory? Lacan claims that fantasy is a mode of access, a method of framing, that addresses a particular surface. This surface, he tells us, is called “reality”—yet it is also called “desire.” It follows that, for Lacan, there is no difference between the two. How these two seemingly oppositional concepts connect can be examined with the help of another concept, one that Lacan addresses most specifically in Seminar XI. There, he describes Freud’s concept of the drive as “a constant force,” one that must be taken “in the form of a surface.”[32]

Fig. 1c -- Rowan Gillespie's Custom House Quay Memorial

Additionally, he explains that the drive “has no day or night, no spring or autumn, no rise and fall.”[33] The drive is therefore a part of the subject that—much like the experience of the Great Famine—extends in perpetuity. By describing it as a surface, Lacan further puts it in a continuum with reality and desire. This is an extension of “Instincts and their Vicissitudes,” where Freud postulates the drive as a form of instinct that needs no external stimulus to be activated. As such, its ability to dispose of unwanted stimulus is not as simple as, for example, drawing one’s hand away from a hot surface. When a stimulus, such as a curling iron, meets the sensory perception of the body from outside, there is a form of action that can dispel the tension without the intervention of conscious thought. Likewise, there is a similar function that occurs within the body—hidden from consciousness and yet every bit as fundamental as the external instincts we so easily perceive. Yet while all instincts attempt to produce satisfaction by reaching a particular “aim,” in Freud’s words, the aim of an internal instinct can be impossible to reach. This is because, while it is easy to remove one’s body from contact with a curling iron left carelessly on a desk, it is impossible to prevent contact with the burning-hot surfaces that develop inside us. Thus, instincts undergo a number of vicissitudes; in Freud’s terms, “motive forces which work against an instinct’s being carried through in an unmodified form.”[34] The drive is the force that prevents an instinct from achieving its aim while simultaneously providing the subject with a form of satisfaction.


In Seminar XI, Lacan addresses this as a recalcitrant feature of subjectivity as one of the founding observations of the practice of psychoanalysis. He calls the drive, “the most essential level of accommodation,” noting, “[i]t is clear that those with whom we deal, the patients, are not satisfied, as one says, with what they are. And yet, we know that everything they are, everything they experience, even their symptoms, involves satisfaction.”[35] The drive is that by which the experience of unhappiness achieves its own satisfaction. It does so precisely in the production of desire, which is coterminous with reality. Fantasy provides the framing through which this production is possible, giving the basic contours to the surface that will become the subject’s reality.

Fig. 1d -- Rowan GIllespie's Toronto Memorial

And the drive is eternal—a constant force, in Freud’s words—because of the role of an object that cannot ever be experienced: an object once lost and never again regained. In Freud’s Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, he describes it in relation of the mother’s breast to a suckling infant: “when the very incipient sexual gratifications were still connected with the taking of nourishment, the sexual instinct had a sexual object outside one’s own body, in the mother’s breast. This object is later lost, perhaps at the very time when it becomes possible for the child to form a general picture of the person to whom the organ granting him the gratification belongs.”[36] By aiming at this lost and therefore unattainable object, the drive is able to continue to produce momentum without maturing or coming to fruition by achieving its aim. In other words, it is always already repeating a quest that it never rightly undertook in the first place. Lacan, moreover, puts this function in relation to the experience of hunger:


How should one conceive of the object of the drive, so that one can say that, in the drive, whatever it may be, it is indifferent? As far as the oral drive is concerned, for example, it is obvious that it is not a question of food, nor of the memory of food, nor the echo of food; nor the mother’s care, but of something that is called the breast. […] If Freud makes a remark to the effect that the object in the drive is of no importance, it is probably because the breast, in its function as object, is to be revised in its entirety.[37]


The revision of the breast’s function as object means that it ceases to be anything corporeal. It is “lost” only in the sense that something once took aim at it and missed. It is never possessed—being always either in the future as a goal or in the past as loss—and therefore the temporality of its being lost is always already counter to any concept of sequential time. The drive is the foundational part of the subject that produces exactly the same counterintuitive relationship to temporality that we found in the Famine: it is simultaneously too late (to capture the lost object) and too early (the object is always to come, just out of reach).


In Lacanian terms, this experience of stasis can be compared to his concept of the space between two deaths—an uncanny zone of experience that will unexpectedly connect the uneasy status of the image to the web of relations between the Great Famine and beauty.


Part II: Famine and Beauty

Lacan’s theory of the space between two deaths has most commonly been used as a means to address the superfluity of zombie-themed media produced in the last ten years. Central among these critics is Slavoj Žižek, who most famously invokes the concept in his book Looking Awry. There, Žižek describes the space between two deaths as a “fundamental fantasy of contemporary mass culture,” specifying its embodiment in the “fantasy of the return of the living dead: the fantasy of a person who does not want to stay dead but returns again and again to pose a threat to the living.”[38] Žižek sets the grounds through which the Irish Famine can be understood as a contemporary example of the space between two deaths, noting that the dead return because there is something lacking in the symbolic (in other words, they were never properly inscribed in it to begin with), and as such they must persist until this symbolic deficit is rectified. He notes: “The two great traumatic events of the holocaust and the gulag are, of course, exemplary cases of the return of the dead in the twentieth century. The shadows of their victims will continue to chase us as ‘living dead’ until we give them a decent burial, until we integrate the trauma of their death into our historical memory.”[39] While Žižek’s point that there is a relationship between the fascination with zombie media and the persistence of certain trauma in the cultural imaginary is well taken, he (like Hirsch) elides the presence of desire in this relation. One might note that integrating the trauma of widespread horror into our historical memory is easier said than done, a process that would involve the abandonment of a fundamental fantasy. As Freud notes, convincing a subject to abandon a pleasurable fantasy is impossible, because it runs counter to the subject’s desire.[40]


Desire is frequently under-represented in analyses of trauma—often justifiably out of fear of suggesting someone would want to be traumatized. Yet it is equally unethical to deny trauma victims access to their own desires. Lacan places the concept of beauty (and its relation to desire) at the heart of the zone between two deaths. He introduces the “second death” in his 1960 seminar on Ethics, and specifically in relation to an extended reading of Sophocles’s Antigone. Lacan uses Antigone’s fate—being sealed off in a tomb and left to die—as a metaphor for the experience of being between two deaths. She is simultaneously alive while also confined to the inevitability of her death. This space “teaches us the meaning of the situation or fate of a life that is about to turn into certain death, a death lived by anticipation, a death that crosses over into the sphere of life, a life that moves into the realm of death.”[41] Lacan further insists that this “meaning” is a relation of desire to the aesthetic object—a relation that redirects desire such that it both encounters and loses the object it set out in search of at the beginning. This relation is the beautiful:


It is when passing through that zone that the beam of desire is both reflected and refracted till it ends up giving us that most strange and most profound of effects, which is the effect of beauty on desire. It seems to split desire strangely as it continues on its way, for one cannot say that it is completely extinguished by the apprehension of beauty. It continues on its way, but now more than elsewhere, it has a sense of being taken in and this is manifested by the splendor and magnificence of the zone that draws it on. On the other hand, since its excitement is not refracted but reflected, rejected, it knows it to be most real. But there is no longer any object.[42]


Here we find the lost object, identified above as the object that escapes the grasp of the drive by being both already lost and not yet attained at the moment the drive reaches for it. In this zone between two deaths, the lingering expression of this lost object is one of aesthetic pleasure: beauty appears to the subject as something “most real” precisely because the lack of a proper object and simultaneous satisfaction of the drive (the expression of being “taken in” by beauty) provides momentum and gives the impression of an aim being fulfilled. Through these observations, it is possible, through syllogism, to reveal the Famine as an aesthetic object. First, The Great Famine is caught between two deaths: it is an event defined by death that ended over a hundred and fifty years ago that nevertheless experiences a vibrancy in the contemporary popular imaginary. Second, the zone that exists between two deaths is an aesthetic zone, a place where desire encounters beauty and is therefore both hastened on a new path and rebuffed—that is, returned to the desiring subject. Finally, The Great Famine, as a space between two deaths, is an aesthetic object.


Perhaps this final observation shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Subjects who were caught in the throes of the starvation in the midst of the Famine did not cease to produce aesthetic objects. James Clarence Mangan, in his poem “Siberia,” constructs an image of suffering from famine that is both highly aestheticized and explicitly defines the situation between two deaths. In this poem, Mangan uses the frozen tundra of arctic Russia as a setting for the expression of Famine Ireland. Melissa Fegan, in her work Literature and the Irish Famine, notes that the poem does not concern the “fear” of death, but rather “numbness” and “expectation.”[43] To this I would add not only expectation but also desire piercing through the experience of temporal indistinction. In the poem’s second stanza, the speaker explains that in Siberia “Night is interblent with Day,” while “The blood blackens,” and “the heart pines.”[44] Mangan’s choice of verb is crucial; the heart does not starve or even yearn, but instead pines—a word that carries with it the connotation of a desire for something that is lost. In the final stanza of the poem we find definitively that this experience of constant desire for a lost object is part and parcel with the experience of the space between two deaths, the aesthetic zone of famine:


Pain as in a dream,

When years go by

Funeral-paced, yet fugitive,

When man lives, and doth not live.

Doth not live—nor die.[45]


There is something undoubtedly uncanny and yet beautiful in the poem’s description of the incessant and yet rhythmic movement of time, for while the heart continues to pine, there is no sequence of events that could grant it any notion of progress, positive or otherwise. The “acute, yet dead” pain that is felt in Siberia goes on “as in a dream” for years at a funeral pace. Additionally, the experience in Siberia is marked by this endless march of time through two aforementioned forces: the blackening of the blood—which the poem’s conclusion reminds us is not a tendency towards death or life—and the pining of the heart. Reality is therefore not a collection of objects of which a consciousness is certain, but rather the persistence of a desire that never ceases even once its object is lost.


Throughout “Siberia” Mangan consistently pulls away the cliché objects and emotions that make it easy for the reader to engage with the poem only through the comfort of rote pity for famine victims. In the first stanza, the wind wounds as if it were a physical object, but in the end reveals nothing but death. In the second stanza, there is neither any summer nor even a difference between night and day. In the third stanza, tears are invoked only through their absence in Siberia, and even the pain that is felt there is dead. Finally, death itself—perhaps the only object that is consistently present throughout the poem—vanishes, as neither life nor death can be said to transpire in the space between two deaths. In the end we are left only with the ambiguous biological process of the blackening of the blood and the pining of the heart. Once all objects are wiped away, Mangan says, we are confronted with the timeless force of the drive and nothing else.


The bulk of critical work devoted to the Famine has attempted to avoid an account of the drive in favor of an emphasis on the bodies of victims and/or the food that they lacked. One of the most popular forms of criticism produces an analytic metonymy whereby the absence of the object of desire (object a) becomes itself objective and therefore more easily submitted to semantic processing. By asserting the value of famine victim’s silence (as in, the absence of speech) as an object of reverence, scholars dismiss the pining of the heart we find in Mangan’s poem. Terrence Brown, in an evocative phrase, calls silence the “truest language” with which to address the Great Famine.[46] In this sense, an object is produced in order to take the place of the missing object encountered in the aesthetic famine. This in turn has two distinct results: 1) the actual experience of famine victims, tempered as it is with the experience of the drive, is elided in favor of an object that gives pleasure to the critics instead, and 2) the famine is isolated as a unique experience rather than an event of a kind with other events in Irish history. Any true absence of an object is therefore completely written over by the presence of signifiers that both demarcate and completely obscure that absence.


Famine is not the only crisis in Ireland’s past where the possibility of enclosing a meaningful silence has emerged from a zone between two deaths. A recent evocative example is the photography of Valerie Anex, who has chronicled the phenomenon of the ghost estate in rural Ireland (see fig. 2). According to the website, “The National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA) defines a ghost estate as a development of ten houses or more in which fifty per cent or less of homes are occupied or completed. In October 2010, according to official estimates, there were 2846 ghost estates and more than 350,000 vacant homes throughout the Republic of

Fig. 2 -- Valerie Anex’s photographs of abandoned luxury housing projects in Ireland

Ireland.”[47] Anex’s photographs of the abandoned Celtic Tiger developments are reminiscent not only of the experience of the Great Famine but also of the haunting line from James Joyce’s “Araby,” in which the narrator describes the train to the bazaar creeping “onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river.” [48] Ultimately the empty bazaar “Araby” is itself of a kind with these empty estates, as the narrator arrives only to find the stalls abandoned and the object of his quest absent. The circuit of Irish aesthetic work, through Mangan, Joyce, and Anex, opens up a particular aesthetics of the drive in relation to the lost object.


In this sense, Anex’s photographs also recall Lacan’s most famous articulation of sublimation: the matchboxes of his friend Jacques Prevert. Lacan describes seeing Prevert’s matchboxes


all the same and […] laid out in an extremely agreeable way that involved each one being so close to the one next to it that the little drawer was slightly displaced. As a result, they were all threaded together so as to form a continuous ribbon that ran along the mantelpiece, climbed the wall, extended to the molding, and climbed down again next to a door.[49]


He goes on to claim that “the shock of novelty of the effect realized by this collection of empty match boxes […] was to reveal something that we do not perhaps pay enough attention to, namely, that a box of matches is not simply an object, but that, in the form of an Erscheinung, as it appeared in its truly imposing multiplicity, it may be a Thing [das Ding].” There is something in Anex’s presentation of empty bungalows that plays with the prosperous Ireland promised during the Celtic tiger and then ripped away—Anex’s play is therefore quite similar to Prevert’s. Something relating to a very material aspect of contemporary Irish nationhood is enclosed in these photographs as a lack, a lack that can then be formally multiplied. What we see when we look at these photographs is something like das Ding. However, Lacan abandons this terminology shortly thereafter, and rather than talk about things and capital-T “Things,” he begins to articulate a theory of objects and objects a. The object a is the name he gives to the lost object that was never possessed, the object that provokes the drive and gives it force ad infinitum. What we find, somewhere in the haunting empty facades of Anex’s ghost estates and the eternal pining described in Mangan’s poetry, is the object we never knew we never had.


The ghost estate perhaps offers a more immediate and material view into the possibility of an Irish national character than does the various iterations of Famine memorialization, and yet one would be hard pressed to make the case that the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger occupies more of the public’s attention. It is possible this is because with the Celtic Tiger we find the remnants of an imagination of mass production and consumption. Because we deal with the excrescence of a consumer process on a daily basis, it becomes harder to convert these remnants into easily consumable commodities. The famine, however, has been made into an object of consumption in many ways; not only with the holy “silence” of the famine upheld by cultural critics, but additionally in the fundamental fantasy of the huddled, wandering family expressed in famine memorials. This image of the famine allows the subject to access desire without the realization that the mode of access is illusory—a necessary feat if the commodity with which capitalism hopes to replace object a is going to succeed.


The best example of the sleight-of-hand that replaces the object a with a consumable object occurred in 2013 with the genetic reproduction of the potato strain devastated during the Famine. This potato, nicknamed “the lumper,” was distributed by luxury grocer Marks and Spencer for Saint Patrick’s Day. Peter Tinkler, a representative of M&S, explained that “despite the unfortunate history” the lumper was sure to “be a hit with customers.”[50] This assertion defies reports claiming the potato was not amenable to contemporary tastes. A food blog claimed the lumper had “a texture that tended towards the waxy end of the scale,” but that the taste was secondary because “the mere fact of [its] availability is a story that has piqued people’s curiosity no end.”[51] This become a commonplace within lumper-reporting, as the Irish Times quoted restaurant owner Peter Gallagher as describing it as “a little bit of Irish history on a plate.”[52] Another restaurateur, Cathal Armstrong, expressed more eloquently the relationship between the potato’s past and present: “I think it’s both exciting and a little frightening […]. But I would still love to get my hands on some and see how they taste. I guess it would be similar to bumping into the ghost of a long-lost relative in a dark alley.” Here I think Armstrong is almost exactly right, except that the relation of causality is reversed. By replacing the word “But” with the words “and so” and eliminating the word “still,” one discovers what is really at stake in the production and marketing of the lumper: “I think it’s both exciting and a little frightening…. And so I would love to get my hands on some and see how they taste.” [53] Tinkler mirrors Armstrong in recognizing a relation between history and desire without recognizing that relation as causal: people want the potato because it is responsible for the Famine. Tinkler’s assertion should therefore also be reversed: M&S understood that despite the lumper’s unfortunate flavor its history would make it a hit with customers.


When asked why he would bother recreating the famine potato, farmer Michael McKillip demonstrated he, at least, understood the lumper’s true appeal: “because of its history,” he responded. Likewise, Dermot Carey, a potato expert, summed up its appeal as “pure nostalgia.”[54] Nostalgia and history both testify, as motivating forces behind desire, to the attempts carried out through Famine commemoration to replace object a with something tangible. By recreating the Famine potato, a literal lack is reified. The lumper whose absence meant so much suffering in nineteenth century Ireland becomes a consumable presence in the twenty-first. History is resurrected into the dead inertia of a repeatable sensory experience—what Mangan in “Siberia” calls “dullest pain.”[55] In short, history is reembodied.


Except that it is precisely the lack of the lumper that characterizes Irish history, not its presence. The task of rendering history tangible in this case misses the mark precisely because it produces a history that never was, a history where the lack behind all desire is turned into a commodity object. This is equivalent to trying to consume the object a itself. Lacan addresses this kind of attempt to approach the lost object, explaining the object a is not related in any way to any sensory experience, or to any “true” account of the body: “the objet petit a is not the origin of the oral drive. It is not introduced as the original food, it is introduced from the fact that no food will ever satisfy the oral drive, except by circumventing the eternally lacking object.”[56] No one will ever acquire the perfect satisfaction of reembodying history because there is always an object missing from the scene—an object that was missing even in the midst of the history one hope to reembody. The lost object—object a—was always there and not there, pushing the drive on its way by endlessly escaping its grasp. This is why object a is called the object cause of desire: the drive, in aiming at it, misses the mark, and therefore experiences a lack that provides it something to want.


It is therefore perfectly fitting that the famine potato, in its reincarnated form, is referred to as the “lumper” rather than the “lump”—as though it were something that acts rather than something that is acted upon. Just as the carpenter produces carpentry and the baker produces baked goods, I imagine the lumper as that which produces lumps: little objects that can attract desire. This reveals the lumper potato’s true purpose: not to be objective nutritional matter for our consumption, but to manufacture these little lumps that distract us from lack in order to provide lures for our desires. These lumps are no different from the metaphorical ones that populate our throats and cause us to emit the silence that can be taken as the ultimate form of meaning. Just as swallowing one lump will not ensure us the pure enjoyment of history, swallowing the other will not clear the way for fully speaking that history, either. Yet we need these little lumps, not just to fill our stomachs, but to fill our mouths with words with which to describe the relative fullness of our stomachs. This is the ceaseless work of the lumper, spinning straw into gold, turning lumps to enjoyable substance, just like object a.


[1] Kevin Whelan, “The Cultural Effects of the Famine,” in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Irish Culture, ed. Joe Cleary and Claire Connolly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 152.

[2] Sigmund Freud, “Remembering Repeating and Working Through,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XII, ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1971), 147.

[3] Ibid., 148.

[4] Central Statistics Office, “Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) 2012,” April 16, 2014, https://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/Annual%20report_2012.pdf.

[5] Cormac Ó Gráda, “Famine, Trauma, and Memory,” Béaloideas 69 (2001), 122.

[6] David Dickson, “The Other Great Irish Famine,” in The Great Irish Famine, ed. Cathal Póirtéir (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1995), 55.

[7] “U.N. Warns of a Food Shortage 3 Years After Somalia’s Famine,” The New York Times, July 26, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/world/africa/un-warns-of-a-food-shortage-3-years-after-somalias-famine.html

[8] Daniel E. Vasey, “Population, Agriculture, and Famine: Iceland, 1784-1785,” Human Ecology 19, no. 3 (1991), 343.

[9] Dickson, “The Other Great,” 54.

[10] L. A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, “A Non-Famine History of Ireland?” History Ireland 10, no. 2 (2002), 33.

[11] Ibid., 35.

[12] “Willful Neglect of Government Caused a Critical Famine in Mithi,” Pakistan Tribe, January 19, 2015, http://www.pakistantribe.com/29375/willful-neglect-of-government-caused-a-critical-famine-in-mithi.

[13] “Minutes of meetings of Sub-Committee of the British Association for the relief of extreme distress in the remote parishes of Ireland and Scotland. With financial statements, Feb., 1847—March, 1849,” MS 5218, National Library of Ireland (NLI).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lauren Murphy, “Big ideas for 2015: a famine sitcom, music, running, body painting and food,” The Irish Times, December 30, 2014, https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/big-ideas-for-2015-a-famine-sitcom-music-running-body-painting-and-food-1.2044322.

[16] Fairlie Gordon, “Petition to stop Channel-4, from making a comedy series, about the Irish Genocide,” Change.org, https://www.change.org/p/petition-to-stop-channel-4-from-making-a-comedy-series-about-the-irish-genocide.

[17] “What's funny about the Irish famine?” BBC, January 7, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-30695909. It is curious to note the connection O’Dowd produces here. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is a crime because it puts people in danger of bodily harm. Making a comedy about the famine mu

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ciarán D’Arcy, “Famine historian criticises ‘unsavoury’ Channel 4 sitcom,” The Irish Times, January 4, 2015, https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/tv-radio-web/famine-historian-criticises-unsavoury-channel-4-sitcom-1.2054163.

[20] In response to the question of the Famine sitcom, I wish to draw attention to the common Irish refrain from the Hunger years: “God sent the potato-blight, but the British caused the famine.” While not strictly a joke, it is impossible to miss that this mantra has all three of the elements of a joke as identified by Freud: “condensation,” “multiple use of the same material,” and “double meaning”; see Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1960), 46. Add to this Freud’s observation that jokes “make possible the satisfaction of an instinct […] in the face of an obstacle that stands in its way,” and it becomes obvious that humor has always served as a mode of expression in relation to famine; see ibid., 120.

[21] Marianne Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory,” Poetics Today 29, no. 1 (2008), 106.

[22] Ibid., 111

[23] Ibid., 115. She continues, “More than oral or written narratives, photographic images that survive massive devastation and outlive their subjects and owners function as ghostly revenants from an irretrievably lost past world. They enable us, in the present, not only to see and to touch that past but also to try to reanimate it by undoing the finality of the photographic ‘take.’”

[24] This concept is given the name “ethnonostalgia” by Joseph Valente, who describes the phenomenon as “a homesickness for secure ethnicity that is also a longing to return to the ethnos as home”; see Joseph Valente, “Ethnonostalgia: Irish Hunger and Traumatic Memory,” in Memory Ireland, Vol. III: The Famine and the Troubles, ed. Oona Frawley (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2014), 185.

[25] Jacques Lacan, “Beyond the Reality Principle,” in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), 63.

[26] Ibid., 68.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Hirsch, “Generation of Postmemory,” 116.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Bruce Fink, Against Understanding, Vol. 2: Cases and Commentary in a Lacanian Key (New York: Routledge, 2014), 208.

[31] Lacan, Seminar XIV: The Logic of Fantasy, unpublished translation by Cormac Gallagher, 4.

[32] Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998), 164.

[33] Ibid., 165.

[34] Freud, “Instincts and their Vicissitudes,” in SE XIV, 126-27.

[35] Lacan, Seminar XI, 166.

[36] Freud, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, in SE XI, 582 (emphasis added).

[37] Lacan, Seminar XI, 168.

[38] Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 22.

[39] Ibid., 23.

[40] “Whoever understands the human mind knows that hardly anything is harder for a man than to give up a pleasure which he had once experienced. Actually, we can never give anything up; we only exchange one thing for another”; see Freud, “Creative Writers and Daydreaming,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. IX (London: Vintage, 2001), 149.

[41] Lacan, Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, trans. Dennis Porter, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992), 248.

[42] Ibid., 248-49.

[43] Melissa Fegan, Literature and the Irish Famine, 1845-1919 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), 192.

[44] James Clarence Mangan, “Siberia,” in Selected Poems of James Clarence Mangan, eds. Jacques Chuto, Rudolf Patrick Holzapfel, Peter van de Kamp, Ellen Shannon-Mangan (Portland, OR: Irish Academic Press, 2003), 234.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Terrence Brown, “Foreword,” The Hungry Voice, ed. Christopher Morash (Portland, OR: Irish Academic Press, 2009), 13.

[47] Valérie Anex, Ghost Estates (2001), http://www.valerieanex.com/index.php/ghost-estates/.

[48] James Joyce, “Araby,” Dubliners (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), 25.

[49] Lacan, Seminar VII, 114.

[50] Richard Ford, “M&S goes back to the past with Lumper potato for St Patrick’s Day,” The Grocer, March 14, 2013, https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/buying-and-supplying/categories/fresh/fruit-and-veg/ms-goes-back-to-the-past-with-lumper-potato-for-st-patricks-day/237550.article.

[51] “Spud Sunday: Return of the Lumper,” The Daily Spud, Mar 11, 2013, http://www.thedailyspud.com/2013/03/11/lumper-potatoes/.

[52] Conor Pope, “Famine Lumpers on the Menu and in Shops, Irish Times, March 7, 2013, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/famine-lumpers-on-the-menu-and-in-shops-1.1319524.

[53] Catherine Zuckerman, “Meet the Lumper: Ireland’s New Old Potato,” National Geographic, March 15, 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/03/130315-irish-famine-potato-lumper-food-science-culture-ireland/.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Mangan, “Siberia,” 234.

[56] Lacan, Seminar XI, 180.