THE title of this new book from Cork University Press, Viewpoints: Theoretical Perspectives on Irish Visual Texts, promises to lead the reader into intriguing and less-travelled territories.
Fourteen essays, by 14 cultural theorists, delve into issues of how identity, gender and sexuality are constructed — and deconstructed — in various areas of cultural production relating to Ireland, most notably film. Edited by Claire Bracken, assistant professor at Union College at Schenectady, New York, and Emma Radley, research fellow at UCD, Viewpoints also provides an overview of the current state of cultural studies in Ireland and further afield. The essays are divided into three main sections, entitled discourse, form and identity. However, these are tenuous distinctions. The essays are nearly all about cinema, and contemporary critical discourse, differing slightly in terms of the methods of analysis used and the critical theorists to whom homage is paid.
For the average reader, a little preparatory research into critical terminology and methodology is advisable, as the Viewpoints editors are clearly confident that phrases such as ‘iconic currencies’ and ‘dynamic inter-textual register’ will present no difficulties. A working knowledge of the works of Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Pierre Bourdieu and other critical theorists would also be useful. To be fair, the contributors to Viewpoints are all academics, and so probably is the target audience.
The term “visual text”, as used in the title, means a picture, diagram or visual image, where narrative and meaning is conveyed through an image, or succession of images. In the same way as a written text will have letters, words and sentences, so a visual text conveys its message using a vocabulary of colour, shape, form and image.
Painting, sculpture and printmaking may once have been considered the mainstream of visual culture, but as Viewpoints reveals, this is no longer the case. Outmoded, and seen as expressive of individual rather than collective concerns, these visual disciplines, along with crafts, applied arts and decorative arts, are not mentioned in any of the essays. The visual material examined is almost entirely lens-based and includes television, photography, video art and cinema. There is equal selectivity in terms of the discourse in the essays, much of which focuses not on mainstream gender and sexual orientation, but on what happens on the borderlines and fringes of society’s norms.
In one essay, Jenny O’Connor examines the ‘ungendered alternative to phallocentric structures’ explored by Neil Jordan in his films Breakfast on Pluto and The Crying Game. To the average cinema-goer, Jordan’s fondness for introducing transvestites and transsexuals into his narratives serves to shock, surprise and delight, depending on the mood or time of day, but O’Connor delves into the deeper meanings raised by Jordan, and her crisp analysis is peppered with delightful passages such as: “His body-under-threat seeks out Dil’s risky body and together they grapple with the practicalities and sexual etiquette of life in the interstice.” It would be easy to dismiss this as pretentious, but O’Connor carries forward her enquiry with the precision of a CSI examiner.
In another excellent essay, Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka dissects Mary Lavelle, written in 1936 by Kate O’Brien, from the point of view of cinematic language used by the novelist. According to the Viewpoint editors, Mentxaka “considers the intersectional relationship between language and image as a queer intervention into both visual and literary practice, and positions this ‘intermediality’ as a political exercise aimed at rethinking aesthetic boundaries, and a way of mobilising ‘hidden’ or ‘disguised’ subtexts which run counter to the established narrative drive.” While it is uncertain as to whether the above can be translated into English, it may mean that O’Brien was secretly lesbian, was interested in cinema and Modern art, and referenced these in her novels in ways that alert readers can appreciate. Happily, Mentxaka’s own prose is clear, well-written and informative, and opens new and fascinating doors to the interpretation of O’Brien’s novels.
While Cheryl Herr’s essay looks at ‘Irish cinematic representation’, this neat phrase sidesteps the obvious dilemma, does Irish cinema actually exist? The answer is, of course yes, but there are many different definitions and nowadays most surveys of Irish cinema take into account not only films made in and about Ireland, but also the audience, and a worldwide context of location, cast, scripts, financing and production. Herr looks at one film, The Woman Who Married Clark Gable, a short film made by Thaddeus O’Sullivan in 1985 and nominated for a Bafta the following year. Having been a cameraman on Pat Murphy’s influential Ann Devlin in 1984, O’Sullivan went on to make highly-regarded films such as December Bride. Herr analyses O’Sullivan’s film from a phenomenological point of view, concentrating on the small everyday actions of the characters, and the way these reveal their way of living in, and coping with, the world.
This phenomenological viewpoint appears also in the essay of Barry Monahan, where he takes a fresh look at one of Ireland’s most enterprising directors, Lenny Abrahamson, director of Adam & Paul and Garage. These same two films feature in Fintan Walsh’s essay, one that focuses on gay themes and subtexts in Irish cinema, and the critique of ‘hetero-normative constructions of the family’.
As media and marketing courses in Ireland’s universities proliferate, the ability to read visual texts in a critical way, exposing hidden references and subliminal messages, is now increasingly common. While the exclusion of wider discourses may well confine this book to a specialist audience, in today’s world, with infallibility having given way to uncertainty and a wide gap opening between neo-liberal western democracies and fundamentalist ideologies, Viewpoints is a timely and interesting look at how Ireland is evolving in the 21st century.
* Viewpoints: Theoretical Perspectives on Irish Visual Texts, edited by Claire Bracken and Emma Radley (Cork University Press, Hardback €39.00)
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