Polymorphous Performance—An Interview with Fintan Walsh

Author: Fintan Walsh (Birkbeck, University of London)

Leafing through some book or other in the early 2000s, I first encountered the Freudian claim that we are all polymorphously perverse.[1] That we might all be perverse, and not just me, was a profoundly assuring and unnerving idea at the time, and one that has stayed with me since. That academic work, including within the trampled field called “Irish Studies,” might involve the study of polymorphous perversions by polymorphous perverts remains such a thrilling idea that it almost sounds too good to be true.


Around the same time as I discovered this twisted nugget, it seemed that a great deal of Irish scholarship was still interested in nationhood, and I was more drawn to male subjectivity. Not that the two are diametrically opposed—indeed, history would suggest we need the latter to sustain the former. Rather, I was more curious about how the psychic and the bodily connected in performance and cultural production, and how this rarely aligned with any kind of national ideal.


The scholars I initially knew of who drew on psychoanalytic theory included Anna McMullan writing on Beckett and Gerardine Meaney writing on feminist theory.[2] Because of the European dimension to their work, perhaps psychoanalysis seemed like a more appropriate and permissible approach, maybe even a way to situate Irish Studies within a broader European context. But I sensed that to write about Ireland or Irish culture psychoanalytically often raised eyebrows that implied we were missing the point or obscuring the real issues. However, the extraordinary The(e)ories seminars run by Noreen Giffney, Anne Mulhall, and Michael O’Rourke since 2002 (becoming Critical Theory and Sexuality Studies in 2007) blew the cobwebs off Irish Studies for me at least by insisting we position our thinking within wider Euro-American debates, including psychoanalytic theory and its manifold iterations.


Psychoanalytic writing seemed to signal a different point of entry towards thinking about those architectures of domination and oppression already established within Irish Studies via postcolonial paradigms by privileging individual experiences of dreaming, talking, listening, trauma, shame, aggression, and longing. While psychoanalysis is best known for offering a theory of psychic life accessed through language, it is very much grounded in the body. There is no other discipline that takes our fantasies around orifices, appendages, and excretions quite so seriously, to the point of making coherent subjectivity seem utterly ludicrous. Moreover, it offers interpretative strategies with which we might try to understand urges and behaviors often considered illegitimate or aberrant, by developing a vocabulary with which we can at least try to make sense of them.


For this reason, psychoanalytic and queer theories have also been connected in my thinking. Both discourses emphasize the entanglements of the bodily and the psychic, and they assume that our desires and identifications do not always play out as they are expected to, that identity is an impossible (if strategically necessary) project destined to halt and crash. While other theoretical approaches might also accede to these claims, psychoanalysis gives due attention to individual particularity and bearing. So while my first encounters with queer theory were via Foucault, who was suspicious of the psych- disciplines, it only started to come alive when I discovered psychoanalytic perspectives that sought to give an account of desire.


Perhaps because of the enormously seductive power of its stories and images, I’ve never felt I could fully trust psychoanalytic theory as an epistemology or method. I do not believe that its model of the human mind is complete or wholly convincing, or even that it needs to be to remain useful. I have concerns about some of its totalizing frameworks. I am excited by other theories of mind which are evolving via neuroscientific research, which seem to affirm the complexity and plasticity of the brain, without fixing a story to it. At the same time, psychoanalytic theory still offers us something that other disciplines straddling the humanities do not: it provides us with an elaborate lexicon to talk about desire and its frustrations. We have no other way of doing this except, perhaps, via art, and in a sense, this is how I feel most comfortable thinking about psychoanalytic theory: as a toolbox of interpretive metaphors and strategies. This resembles the model that practicing psychoanalyst Adam Phillips proposes—including with a theatrical emphasis—in his recent book, Becoming Freud: The Marking of a Psychoanalyst, when he writes: “Psychoanalysis, which started as a new improvisation in medical treatment, became at once, if not a new language, a new story about stories.”[3] Accordingly, in writing about performance, I’ve became more interested in how theater asks psychoanalytic questions, or pressures some of its tenets—theater as the machine that improvises and tells new stories. (Contemporary Irish performance of this kind might include work by Pan Pan, Neil Watkins, or Brokentalkers, for instance.) [4]


In preparing for this interview, I was struck by how little I’ve explicitly drawn on psychoanalytic writing in recent years. Surprised, especially, because I’ve always felt an affinity with it. I continue to read psychoanalytic writing, and often feel most at home there. But now my attitude towards it feels much like it does towards queer theory: that they have been absorbed as dispositions of thinking and feeling, rather than explicit areas of inquiry or application.


This relationship may also be due the fact that the work I’m interested in right now does not lend itself to be easily understood by a triadic Oedipal narrative structure, which even a decade ago seemed to suit Irish culture particularly well. In my book Queer Performance and Contemporary Ireland: Dissent and Disorientation, psychoanalytic theory didn’t predominantly lend itself to thinking about theater, phenomenology, and social change, although I do believe it offered backseat support.[5]


Of course, the inability of psychoanalytic theory to be obviously useful might signal a certain kind of liberation from normative power relations. I’m open to this possibility—that cultural and political shifts might render certain psychoanalytic topologies and structures redundant. But I’m mindful, too, that psychoanalytic theory suggests that nothing really disappears, just bides and haunts in other rooms, where others are forced to bear the burden of our freedoms. In this sense, psychoanalytic theory still represents an important call to shine a light into those shadows, coaxing elided stories and excluded characters to take center stage.




[1] See Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on The Theory of Sexuality, ed. and trans. James Strachey (1905; New York: Basic Books, 1962).

[2] In particular Anna McMullan, Theatre on Trial: The Later Drama of Samuel Beckett (London and New York: Routledge, 1993) and Gerardine Meaney, (Un)Like Subjects: Women, Theory, Fiction (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).

[3] Adam Phillips, Becoming Freud: The Marking of a Psychoanalyst (New Haven and London; Yale University Press, 2014), 6.

[4] Fintan Walsh, Theatre & Therapy (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[5] Fintan Walsh, Queer Performance and Contemporary Ireland: Dissent and Disorientation (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).