The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
The Rising of the Moon: the language of power

The Rising of the Moon: the language of power, by Ella O Dwyer (London, Pluto Press, 2003) 160pp, £18.00 (ISBN 0 7453 1862 2)

Book Review

Liam O Ruairc • Fortnight, January 2004

Ella O Dwyer is a former Republican prisoner, who was sentenced in 1986 for her participation in a bombing campaign in England. She was later released under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Her book is based on the MA and PhD she completed while imprisoned. Its general topic is power, control, and the intimate relation they establish with the structure of language and the framework through which meaning operates. Unsurprisingly, she draws heavily on the ideas of French thinker Michel Foucault, who in his study on the birth of the prison in the nineteenth century explored the relations between power and knowledge. “I can attest to the authority of Foucault’s work, having spent years imprisoned in the Victorian time wraps of Brixton and Durham prisons. He got it right; a circle of surveillance called empire projects an imposed silence and anonymity upon the subject psyche.” (p. 23)

For O Dwyer, silence and anonymity are the hallmarks of Irish national discourse. This is the result of the thwarting of discourse by English colonial interference. Imperialism is not just a social and economic phenomenon, it also affects the way people think and express themselves culturally. “The characteristic dynamic of domination and colonisation inherent to power is also present in the traditional interpretative structures which design and epitomise official culture.” (p. 47) “Empire-speak” as O Dwyer calls it, from Edmund Spencer to Margaret Thatcher infiltrated and shaped indigenous narrative at all levels, obstructing the emergence of a national discourse. This “cognitive control” results in a “culture of silence”. “Empire-speak infiltrates and shapes indigenous narrative at all levels, as already demonstrated by the very colonising influences attendant on the entire cognitive institution.” (p. 93) O Dwyer's book examines how this process is at work in a number of novels and plays, not all by Irish authors but in every case affected by colonial and neo-colonial domination. In a series of close textual studies, she shows how colonial interference colonises the writing space of Edmund Spencer, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, Chinua Achebe, and Michael Farrell’s novel Thy Tears Might Cease; creating what Frederic Jameson calls a "political unconscious" immanent in the narratives of the various works analysed. She also refers to many historical, political and cultural figures and events from the 1798 United Irishmen to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Her symptomatic reading traces and investigates in their writings the manifestations of power and control, interpreting the gulfs, spaces and splits in those texts as a symptom of a repressive system of meaning. For example, in the novels of Chinua Achebe, she notes that “the deliberate absence of power from the frontline dramatic agenda actually engenders and cultivates the absent quality of a presence or power which permeates the novel in a less tangible form.” (p. 120)

The book avoids a one-dimensional reduction of those works to the economy of power, and insists on the contradictory logic at work in those texts. A latent utopian and emancipatory content is also present, although under a repressed form. In order to go beyond empire-speak and cognitive control, O Dwyer seeks to “spell out” this otherness locked into the silences and spaces of narrative. “It is the gift of otherness to provide a path out of those interlocking relations of power and violence.” (p. 124) One of the most powerful example she uses to illustrate this potential is her discussion -unfortunately too brief- of traditional Irish musical language. To borrow a metaphor from Wittgenstein, what the subaltern cannot “say”, traditional Irish music is able to “show”.

“Rescuing the speechless and unspeakable moments of history, music notes and mediates between various dimensions of standard meaning. Frustrated for want of expression, the passions and drives of that elaborate cognitive system seek refuge in the musical context, borrowing a voice from the milieu of sound.” (p. 36)

Music thus allows the recognition, retrieval and delivery of identity. “While oppression factors crucially at tonal and thematic levels, the co-ordination and composed aspect of traditional play indicates the stalwart tenacity of a surviving people.” (p. 38) O Dwyer is absolutely right to argue here that resistance to empire and cognitive control is present in the tensions immanent to the musical material; her argument has a close affinity to T.W. Adorno’s analysis of Schoenberg’s atonal compositions, when he pointed that the status of music as a commodity is resisted internally by the music itself by deliberately maintaining unresolved tensions.

O Dwyer’s book is excellent on the conflict-ridden nature of language, particularly on how the syntax of ideological narrative is disrupted by the “return of the repressed”. Ella O Dwyer skilfully analyse this literal war of words, where statement and silence are strategically deployed as weapons of conflict, where the linguistics of power address the logistics of combat. “Ours has been a discourse at war where syllable and silence are unleashed according to their military merit.” (p. 26) She meticulously shows how each writer negotiates with language, relating meaning to the antagonism involved in engagements with power. Her treatment of the different authors is first class. However, O Dwyer's book is not without its flaws. Her writing tends not only to be difficult, but is too often simply obscure. It might be the purpose of a wretched sentence like “A deadly power shielded by the cloaked consciousness of subjectivity unnerves the cognitive mainstream which compounds its oppressive governance with a drive to dissolve that threat” (p. 66) to subvert the bogus transparency of “empire-speak”; but it is probably more a symptom of that same empire speak than a real solution to it. When not obscure, parts of the book are simply quite bizarre. The last chapter is particularly so, consisting of a surreal encounter between Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Eamon de Valera, Bobby Sands, Mairead Farrell, Samuel Beckett and his character Molloy. Her choice of materials can also be sometimes questionable. Rex Taylor’s biography of Michael Collins or Danny Morrison’s novel “The Wrong Man” might be interesting; but they are far less significant than let's say C.Desmond Greaves' biography of Liam Mellows or Mairtin O Cadhain's reinvention of the Irish language. But those flaws should not detract us from the fundamental quality and originality of this book.



Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

8 January 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


A Man for All Seasons?
Eamon Sweeney


"A Means to Fight Back"
Marian Price


Tame Bulls in the China Shop
Anthony McIntyre


The Rising of the Moon: the language of power
Liam O Ruairc


Limerick Feud Denial

Óglaigh na hÉireann


Selective Memory
Michael Youlton


A Free Press in Iraq?
Mick Hall


Robert Zoellick and Wise Blood - The Hazel Motes Approach to International Trade
Toni Solo


Christmas Greetings 2003
Annie Higgins


The Close of the Year 2003 - The Belfast SWP
Davy Carlin


4 January 2004


Anthony McIntyre


New Years Statement 2004

Óglaigh na hÉireann


New Year Greetings
Jimmy Sands


In Memorium
Brian Mór


Is This The Real IRA?
Liam O Ruairc


Dec. 16th Dail Questions



Provos/SDLP/Dublin Securing Partition
Liam O Comain


The Patriot Game
Kathleen O Halloran


Wiping Out the Opposition
Aine Fox


They Will Never Get Us All
Sean Matthews


The Letters Page has been updated.




The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices