Psychoanalysis in Irish Studies—An Interview with Claire Bracken

Author: Claire Bracken (Union College)

How has the discourse of psychoanalysis shaped or contributed to your exploration of Irish literature and culture more generally?


Psychoanalysis has profoundly shaped my thinking about, and analytical approach to, Irish literature and culture. During my undergraduate and graduate studies at University College Dublin and University College Cork respectively, I was influenced by the important feminist psychoanalytic scholarship of Patricia Coughlan, Gerardine Meaney, Anne Mulhall, and Moynagh Sullivan. Through their work and mentorship, I realized just how crucial psychoanalysis is to feminist explorations of Irish literature and culture, enabling thoughtful critique of some of the most entrenched gendered constructions underwriting the Irish imaginary, particularly with respect to the well-known Ireland-as-woman trope.


One of the feminist impetuses driving my work is an ethical commitment to a theorization of feminine subjectivities, in addition to analyses of the ways women’s bodies are variously and differently inscribed and managed within late capitalism. My book Irish Feminist Futures reads feminine models of selfhood in women’s writing and film of the Celtic Tiger period that are profoundly relational and affective, embodied and located. I’m referring here to the work of—to name but a few—Marina Carr, Anne Enright, Claire Kilroy, Ursula Rani Sarma, and Catherine Walsh. The representations of subjectivity configured in the classical paradigm of lack and alienation have enabled me to trace the psycho-dynamics at play in the work of women writers, as they go beyond a semiotically-inflected construction of identity to the affective resonances of enfleshed connected selfhood. The feminist psychoanalyses of Luce Irigaray, Bracha Ettinger, and Julia Kristeva have aided in my theorization of this selfhood, bringing us as they do to the unrepresented site of a maternal-feminine imaginary. Their critiques of the representation of the feminine in classical psychoanalysis, where it is figured in terms of undifferentiated matter, enable new—at times intersubjective—forms of thought about selfhood. The work of feminist psychoanalysis, particularly that of Luce Irigaray, opened my work up to visceral experiences of selfhood and its affective charges. I am very interested in the writings of Rosi Braidotti and Sara Ahmed, both of whom draw from the insights of psychoanalysis, while encompassing a new materialist approach. I would place my work within such a theoretical context.


For a time, while working on my PhD, I moved away from psychoanalysis as a central frame, focusing more on models in the work of Deleuze and Guattari that attempt to exceed the parameters of the self and subjectivity. However, the consistent return of psychoanalytic frameworks in my scholarship is a feminist commitment to the necessity and ethics of articulating the dimensions of feminine selfhood. And contemporary women’s writing in Ireland is interested in figurations of subjectivity, the sinews of its various shapings. Thus, my journey away from psychoanalysis took a route that ultimately brought me back to its methodological spaces, which folded in a new materialist approach that—for me—enabled discussion of the embodied and located positionality of women’s cultural work of the Celtic Tiger.



To what degree and in what ways do you feel psychoanalytic conceptions have affected literary and cultural production in Ireland over the course of the long twentieth century?


Psychoanalytic traces are evident throughout Irish cultural and aesthetic forms. To name just a few examples, we can see it in the Oedipal dynamics played out in the work of Joyce, Yeats, and Flann O’Brien, and the explorations of desire in Edna O’Brien and Kate O’Brien, while Anne Enright has noted the importance of object relations theory to her fiction. Psychoanalysis seems to have particular effect and resonance in literature that engages with subjects of sexualities, providing as it does a framework for a consideration of the power structures and operations of desire. In this context, an analysis of mid-century literature in Ireland, sexuality, and the influence of psychoanalysis would be a fascinating project.


I’m particularly interested in how classical psychoanalytic conceptions of gendered subjectivity affect criticism, having an impact on how Irish literature and culture can be read and understood, revealing ideological structures and power dynamics deeply embedded in the recesses of the Irish twentieth-century imaginary.


Irish literature is marked by representations of alienated masculine subjectivities, subjectivities that seem predicated on the phallic model Lacan describes so well. In his groundbreaking book The Myth of Manliness, Joseph Valente provides an exploration of this alienated subjectivity in the pre-independence context, establishing powerful connections between ideal constructions of masculinity and phallic lack. In Irish Feminist Futures, I consider the continued prevalence of this alienated construction in literature, film, and popular culture of the long twentieth century, evident for example in the anxieties and torments of Stephen Dedalus, Patrick Maguire of The Great Hunger, and the characters of Waiting for Godot. In more recent manifestations we see it in John Banville’s agonized protagonists, Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Lehiff in Intermission and Ray in In Bruges, not to mention the disenfranchised posturings of The Rubberbandits.


The gendered implications of this are most felt in representations and configurations of the Mother Ireland trope. Moynagh Sullivan’s vital and important work crucially reveals that the matter from which the alienated subject separates is the mother’s body, the motherland. Thus, we have a paradigm whereby Oedipal dynamics underpin the construction of the Ireland-as-woman motif. What we can see from this are the ways colonialism, nationalism, religion, and patriarchy fold together in the Irish context to construct an undifferentiated figuration of maternal matter that props up and supports a gendered configuration of subjectivity in phallic terms. This has real implications for the real lives of women and men, not least of which has been the absence and elision of women from public life in twentieth-century Ireland.


In the post-feminist times of late capitalism in Ireland, where feminine identity is an object par excellence, the ultimate consumer good, we can see the alienated paradigm at work: the neo-liberal subject of desire is the post-feminist subject. While this is of course something that can be read globally, in many cultures of the West particularly, there is a peculiarity to it in the Irish context. Post-feminist identity is drawn simultaneously from the neo-liberal present and a colonial/postcolonial past, as an individualized and alienated subjective model of masculine subjectivity is grafted onto feminine bodies. The work of contemporary women writers and filmmakers—and I’m thinking here of Claire Kilroy, Marina Carr, Anne Enright, and Kirsten Sheridan—explores the difficulties for women to inhabit such an alienating subjective condition, particularly when the feminine body has historically been constituted as motherland in the Irish imaginary. Indeed, women’s bodies continue to be constituted in such problematic terms, imagined in terms of maternity and reproductive futurity, something evidenced in the continued restrictions placed on access to abortion in Ireland.



What in Irish literature and culture has, in your estimation, proven especially amenable or especially resistant to psychoanalytic modes of interpretation?


In terms of amenability, I think it has flourished in really interesting and fascinating ways in feminist and queer scholarship in Irish Studies. For example, the interdisciplinary seminar series The(e)ories has been an instrumental force in this area, bringing speakers such as Leo Bersani, Lisa Baraitser, Bracha Ettinger, Lee Edelman, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to University College Dublin, enabling the dissemination of their important psychoanalytic work and thinking, as studies of Irish culture are folded together with queer theory and psychoanalytic models. Noreen Giffney, Anne Mulhall, and Michael O’Rourke have published dynamic theoretical work connected to this speaker series and workshop.


My focus is again on criticism here. However, my implicit point is that the importance of psychoanalysis to scholarship on Irish literature and culture indicates just how amenable psychoanalysis is to Irish literature and culture. In my own scholarship, I have found that blending a psychoanalytic reading with theories of affect enable a more located and accountable approach, particularly imperative for intersectional work that properly engages the relations between race, gender, sexuality, and class.



Is there any one strain of psychoanalysis that has been most useful to your Irish Studies projects?


Psychoanalysis that incorporates affective and materialist dimensions has been most influential and important to my work—for example, the aforementioned work of Luce Irigaray and Bracha Ettinger, in addition to the psychoanalytically traced scholarship of Rosi Braidotti, Sara Ahmed, and Gilles Deleuze.