‘Irish Nostalgia as Commodity and Control’ – Miles Link

Miles Link on the use of ‘real Ireland’ nostalgia both as a commodity and as subtle element in the reproduction of class and power structures:

Any prolonged look at Irish popular culture will reveal its status as an elaborate performance. The ‘plastic Paddy’, a show put on for tourists and outsiders, is a well-worn idea, but there is also an interior identity, conceived of as more ‘genuine’, which is performed by the Irish to themselves. Or rather, it is performed to them, since I want to argue that the mass media of Irish television, radio, film and the web, most of what speaks about the Irish as ‘us’ and ‘we’, is not a celebration of some national culture at all. It actually constitutes a way of constructing an Irish identity that serves economic power—what the social theorist and philosopher Theodor Adorno would call ‘the culture industry’.

Adorno first introduced the concept of the culture industry in an essay written with Max Horkheimer and published in their 1947 book Dialectic of Enlightenment.

To give the ten cent version, Horkheimer and Adorno saw Western mass culture, and American mass culture in particular, as a vast body of social suggestion. The concept of the culture industry, which Adorno would develop across his career, resembles ideas about society, culture and control from before and after his time, but it is perhaps the one most concerned with questions about the quality and function of art (and, in our case, what constitutes a nation’s art): who produces it? To what use is it put? What messages does it impart? Horkheimer and Adorno concluded that the culture industry, disguised as simple entertainment, was, however subtly, how capitalism held its core values in place, by presenting these values as natural and unchanging; how it occupied people’s leisure time, in turn shaping attitudes towards work; and how it closed off any chance of thought that might suggest ways of living beyond capitalism.

So how could Adorno’s culture industry operate outside of America, say in a minority culture like Ireland’s? The point I want to make is that it doesn’t matter that Ireland seems ‘too small’ to have a mass culture; mass culture isn’t a function of an audience’s size but reveals itself in how it treats its audience (not as a public but as a mass). After that point is conceded, we’re at liberty to start thinking about Irish mass culture systematically.

If there is a medium through which an Irish culture industry works, it is through the processes of nostalgia and reminiscence. The concept of a ‘genuine’ Ireland is consistently located in a very recent but nevertheless inaccessible past. In the context of the Irish relationship to the past, to snap up nostalgia is a means of re-affirming yourself in the social order. We’re talking here about the manner in which history is framed in the popular consciousness. This becomes especially evident in what of contemporary Ireland is chosen as worthy of commemoration. The inverted phrase used to describe the 1980s, ‘the bad old days’, becomes Ireland’s version of ‘ostalgia’, the term used to describe rosy reminiscences by erstwhile citizens of the German Democratic Republic. Both are uneasy assessments of a past that was somehow more genuine by being harsher, and both, masked with the ‘authenticity’ of a shared privation, are appropriated into the niche market of fashionable kitsch with remarkable ease.

However, we mustn’t confine our definition of ‘culture’ to the end products of mass consumption alone—films, television shows, books, magazines, that sort of thing, because the crucial aspect of nostalgia’s role in constructing Irish identity is that it’s mediated, it’s done either through these explicit mass cultural products, or from the bottom up by participation in commercially-mediated spaces like the internet. The RTÉ series Reeling in the Years; the US photographic book series; much of the content on websites such as Broadsheet, the Journal.ie, or Joe.ie; Twitter hashtags about ‘citizenship tests’, and reminiscences about brands of ice cream or teen heartthrob boy bands—such demonstrations of nostalgia and memory, as a body, take on the role of enforcers of the acceptable boundaries of Irish identity, which must be continually reaffirmed.

Most importantly, however, is that this structure of boundaries is not the result of some organic process outside human agency. When Irish nostalgia is commodified, and when the objects of Irish nostalgia are themselves commodities, the result is a manufactured programme of creative works meant to sustain a structure of economically-based power. When the Irish reminisce, you can be almost certain that a saleable product will be somewhere close by.

Now, when discussing his concept of the culture industry, Adorno said that he disliked the term ‘mass culture’, because it was so readily confused with the term ‘popular culture’—he insisted that ‘mass culture’ did not have the same relationship with an audience as that which was ‘popular’—which might consist of, say, oral traditions of storytelling, or craftwork. ‘Mass’ culture was produced out of a system of circulating capital, and it reinforced the values of this system.

Defining our terms this way actually gives us a rebuttal to one of the conceivable objections to the idea that contemporary Irelandlives under the spell of a culture industry: this isn’t America, and Ireland is too small for the culture industry to ‘work’. We all know each other, Irish life is too intimate, too communal, and I saw Colin Farrell on the street last evening, so such a hierarchy of power and attitudes can’t work in this way. Well, the answer to that is that the level of intimacy that people feel with their superiors is insignificant. The ‘mass’ in ‘mass culture’ is not a description of its audience’s size. It describes instead how these cultural products treat their audience. The culture industry massifies people, it turns people into masses: this massifying process is what’s at work when the economist David McWilliams invents the ‘Breakfast Roll Man’, the image of a ‘typical’ Dublin commuter, who is imbued with some sort of mystic economic import. As McWilliams wrote in 2007:

[Breakfast Roll Man] is part of the Spar generation – a shopper with no loyalty who wants convenience, wants it now, close at hand and wants it in the car. […] This is the new face of suburban Irelandand Breakfast Roll man is its chief architect, head financier, town planner and designer.

It is only within the context of a culture industry that a conception like the ‘Breakfast Roll Man’ would be possible: a bloc of functionally identical individuals, not an economic class as such, but a group defined by what they buy and whose interiority is not particularly significant.

Adorno was careful to stress that the culture industry is not a method of brainwashing or mind control. This is not a conspiracy theory of how mass culture programmes you to perform certain actions; it’s simply a way of describing how capitalism perpetuates itself, besides its structures of law, ownership and governance. We are quite ready today to admit that popular media has encoded within it all sorts of messages about gender and sexuality, messages that are heavily commercial in nature, but we seem unwilling to extend this thought into the possibility that mass culture might be telling us similar messages about class, authority, power and nationality. All the culture industry needs to do to succeed is to prevent you from thinking differently.

The most common point of attack against Adorno is that he is elitist; he assumes that people are so dumb that they cannot pull themselves away from this mindless entertainment. But I would argue that this is not a view of the world that has lost faith in the ability of people to think for themselves and to determine their own lives—it’s true that people enjoy the products of the culture industry: they’re meant to be enjoyed. Conceding that doesn’t make the people dupes, however. It simply means that public discourse is, as a hegemonic whole, impoverished, in that you are not given the opportunity to choose in a meaningful way. It’s not actually the critics of mass culture who are the cynics here, but its purveyors: they are the ones who claim that they are simply giving the people what they want, and the assumed picture of what they ‘want’ is nothing particularly complex or challenging: Adorno says,

‘The viewer is supposed to be as incapable of looking suffering in the eye as he is of exercising thought’[2].

A manifestation of the Irish Elite?

The most relevant point about the culture industry for us is that you are forced to continually reaffirm your commitment to the picture that the culture industry presents. Life in the culture industry is—Adorno again—‘a constant initiation rite.  Everyone must show that he wholly identifies himself with the power which is belaboring him’[3]. Think of all the people who consider The Late Late Show rubbish but still watch it, or the ones who get into violently heated debates about whether Rory McIlroy is British or Irish. Such examples by themselves are really quite harmless, yet it’s by this very mechanism of reaffirmation that issues which are, by rights political, are disguised as apolitical, and people are forced into an attitude of fatalistic acceptance.

To give an example: on the evening of December 19th last year, RTÉ’s The Frontline addressed the subject of emigration. Before either guest or audience had said a word, however, the show began with a montage of television advertisements from across the years, with emigration as their central theme: there was the twenty-five-year-old ad for Harp lager, featuring a man writing home about all the things he missed—with this drumming refrain of ‘and a pint of Harp’ after something particularly sentimental. Another advertisement, for Kerrygold butter, featured a strapping Irish lad whose mammy chokes up as he rides off to the airport to move toGermany. He’s got a tin of soil with him, and he indicates his German partner, who is pregnant, and he says, ‘his feet will touch Irish soil first’.

All this, by way of introduction to a debate about the effects of emigration on contemporary Ireland, a debate that never examined the causes of the economic crash that had forced out these new emigrants. In a similar but no less depressingly routine example of the strategy of deflection, the Finance Minister Michael Noonan’s comments in January that emigration is a ‘lifestyle choice’­ easily drew attention away from the fact that his own department makes fiscal decisions based on the assumption that about 100,000 people will emigrate by 2014.

Coincidentally, on the very same day that this episode of The Frontline aired, the author John Banville had an article printed in the New York Times on the subject of emigration, called ‘The Grim Good Cheer of the Irish’, detailing his perspective of emigration from the 1950s. Banville said:

The violent poetry of leave-taking is ingrained in the Irish consciousness. […] One could say, as some do, that we Irish are congenitally masochistic, that we secretly welcome misfortune. But it does not feel like that. Rather, we have always had a propensity to laugh at ourselves […].

This endless iteration of the Ireland of the permanent past is in fact deeply aligned with the issue of emigration: and this is one example of how an issue rooted in material conditions that are specific to each era is transmogrified into an unalterable aspect of national character– some kind of unchanging definition of what it means to ‘be’ Irish. Being Irish here apparently means being a periodic victim of sentimental ‘leave-taking’.

In the present order, the attitudes usually put down to a lingering colonial mentality actually insinuate themselves in a much deeper way than before, without the conscious imprinting by an exterior force—these attitudes actually only really do their duty when it appears that they come from nowhere, rather than from a departed national antagonist. It fosters the sense that these attitudes really do speak to an immutable truth that must be reckoned with. An editorial from March 6th’s Irish Times features the perfect intersection of what I mean, this enforced mixture of cultural identity and political acceptance: the editorial, referring to the performance of the children’s show puppet Dustin the Turkey at the 2008 Eurovision competition, had this to say:

Recognising and accepting [the] harsh reality [of austerity] is still a work in progress within the electorate. The arrogant attitude that sent a turkey to represent us at the Eurovision song contest at the height of the boom may have dissipated. But a sense of entitlement, a belief that others will rescue us—even from ourselves—persists.

[I must thank Richard McAleavey for this quote, as well as his comments on the same passage]. The point of all this is that this conception of the past and identity is that the nostalgia which reinforces the picture of Irishness is so heavily mediated. It’s not a personal activity, but something that comes through a computer or a magazine or a television, as a part of a network of web developers, public relations firms, communications coaches, television and radio executives, state officials and promoters.

Now, the media theorist Michael Bull has a great quote articulating the importance of media in experiencing the past—television, radio, whatever—and especially of inducing nostalgia:

Nostalgia and mechanical reproduction go together: experience is reproduced (the dead come back to life), and that which is forgotten is bathed in a light of recollection. Mediated nostalgia […] reverses the irreversibility of time in the mind of the subject. The history of mechanical reproduction is thus a history of the increased ability of people to create patterns of instant recall in which they conjure up real or imagined memories of home, place and identity.[4]

This quote and the article it comes from are actually quite positive about the ability of media to give us access to a shared history, but this optimism can become rather muted when you consider how much of a construct this supposedly ‘shared’ history is. The point is that mediated nostalgia means the materials denoted worthy of representing the Irish past, and thus the Irish identity, are forever present: especially with digital media, the memory never degrades. In some sense the materials of the past actually become inescapable. The sheer ubiquity and uniformity of the culture industry’s products are presented as the consensus of an entire society, but, as J.M. Bernstein says, they only really present:

‘the universality of the homogeneous same, an art which no longer even promises happiness but only provides easy amusement as relief from labour’[5].

The past for Ireland in this configuration is a place of eternal refuge, which is why websites like Broadsheet.ie can post video after video showing dashboard camera footage of drives through Dublin in 1982 or 1976 and earlier, or put up a steady stream of antique postcards: not as a reflection on what has changed, but on what has unending permanence. The past is seldom made a place of confrontation; it is converted into one of the most persistent advertising motifs, such as a recent television commercial for Johnston Mooney and O’Brien, featuring footage of a bread delivery van driving past Michael Collins and Pope John Paul II speechifying, while a (decidedly young) man sings, ‘Let’s go back, let’s go back to a time where the world was yours and mine’. I’m following from the sociologist Richard Sennett here, who says that the most common conception of social solidarity, the most common sense of community extant, is one that actually destroys difference and avoids complexity. He says:

Individuals in the community have achieved a coherent sense of themselves precisely by avoiding painful experiences, disordered confrontations and experiments, in their own [adolescent] identity formation [and his ‘adolescence’ is meant to be developmental, not strictly temporal].[6]

Just to underline that, the critic Svetlana Boym, who has written extensively about nostalgia, says,

‘Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship’[7].

The day that the Mahon Tribunal report came out was one of those days when the Irish love affair with its past revealed its tawdriness. What has become the star paragraph of the Mahon Tribunal report is particularly instructive:

Given the existence of such rampant public corruption, the obvious question is why it was allowed to continue unabated. The short answer to that question is that it continued because nobody was prepared to do enough to stop it. This is perhaps inevitable when corruption ceases to become an isolated event and becomes so entrenched that it is transformed into an acknowledged way of doing business. Specifically, because corruption affected every level of Irish political life, those with the power to stop it were frequently implicated in it. Moreover, the general apathy on the part of the public towards that corruption meant that there was insufficient pressure from the public to compel their representatives to take firm action to curtail or eliminate it.

The use of ‘corruption’ is interesting. Corruption is considered dysfunction. Yet the report is talking about systemic dysfunction. The system is operating just fine, a dysfunction has become the norm—the ‘corruption’ itself becomes an immutable fact, and the great unnamed ‘somebody’ of Irish life is excoriated for failing engage in a Sisyphean task of attempting to banish a supposedly inescapable truth of Irish politics, this thing called ‘corruption’. Admittedly, people derive importance from the forum in which a message is delivered; the public finds it significant that a tribunal report, and not a radio phone-in show or the letters page of a broadsheet is the voice speaking out this time (or perhaps this is not something to be ‘admitted’, since the only reason ‘legitimate’ forums acknowledge a dilemma is to corral it, to drain it of its troublemaking potential). The call to end ‘corruption’ comes to resemble the calls to enact ‘capitalism for regular people’, or even the declaration of a ‘war on terror’: an endeavour that refuses to conceive its own success, that nullifies its end because it is asking for something outside the bounds of its own conditions.

The general reaction to Mahon was typical (it simply repeated the reception of the Moriarty Tribunal report from last year). The refusal to act, the easy fatalism of bien pensants and others, is exposed, considered, and then flung backwards in the face of the past once again. Actions from the past that don’t reinforce the Irish self-image of the insouciance of the little people are rejected; ‘It’s old news, we’re over that.’ When it comes to the tribunals this is usually framed in a cartoonishly broad attempt at distancing, i.e. ‘Yerragh, they’re all corrupt’: the tribunals are lengthy and wasteful and expensive, and when they finally produce their reports, decades after the events they investigated, they can only restate what was ‘already known’ at the time.

Reeling in the Years completes the process. Its blend of video footage, popular music, news bulletins and other sources neatly sum up the zeitgeist as it was, or at least as it is conceived from our own historical moment. The show is valuable, in that it does present us with more inconvenient aspects of the Irish past: the bigotry and the ugly political rhetoric—it gives us history, washed of most of its passions. But Reeling in the Years is an enormously effective producer of nostalgic commemoration, which otherwise seemingly erupts from nowhere: it tells us what from the past deserves recognition, and what is better left unspoken of.

I’m thinking here of the ironic video clips featured on Reeling in the Years of former taoisigh Charlie Haughey, who comments on winning the lottery, or Bertie Ahern, who says that the Irish public would get great pleasure from seeing tax cheats go to jail. These actually become an emblem of this inability to make use of the past to inform action in the present. These clips are shown not as cautionary tales or warnings—it is never suggested to draw comparisons between how power operated then and how it operates now. The seamless integration of past leaders speaking quite brazenly against their own malfeasance into clips of GAA champions lifting the Sam Maguire cup, or old traffic safety videos for children, simply affirms that destructive political leadership is part of an unbroken Irish heritage. Dwelling on the past inIreland in this manner is a ubiquitous reminder that it is futile to take political action; the steady drumbeat of history as it is presented informs you that events could not have ended in any manner but the one in which they have ended.

And this view can even be codified in settings of greater prestige. Recently a new venture, the Little Museum of Dublin, opened on St Stephen’s Green, a new municipal museum. The collection is divided between two large rooms in a Georgian townhouse, featuring donated items arranged by decade, from 1900 to the present: in the first room, you find a collection heavily invested in the political atmosphere leading up to the War for Independence and the Civil War—so you have items like the letter from Eamon de Valera stipulating to the Irish delegation on how to negotiate the Anglo-Irish treaty, or documentation of the horrors of slum life in the early 20th century.

The second room, however, veers into a definition of culture that does not stray beyond Aer Lingus poster adverts, television show props, and U2 album covers—or else it is political history as the familiar litanies of famous men, meaning the lectern from which JFK spoke in the Dáil, or Bertie Ahern’s first campaign poster. This is not to malign the Little Museum of Dublin, or to belittle cultural history as a distinct component of a national story, but it is significant that these two periods are actually divided into separate physical spaces: so we get in one room the Ireland of revolutionary possibilities, so far back in the past that it is safe to commemorate—and in the other room, an Ireland of winking acceptance of entrenched power, still resounding all about us.

By necessity, these observations have been broad and imprecise, but it is already apparent where such an analysis, fully formed, could go. In fact, this is already being done in various ways by folks working in media studies in DCU, UCD and NUI Maynooth; they can provide a much richer picture than I can conjure up here. It is obvious, at least, that anyone who chooses to critique Ireland’s culture industry has an ever-growing pile of material to draw from: just the past fortnight saw a fresh round of Irish armchair linguistics (in which the only obsession stronger than uncovering words dubiously attributable to Irish—‘jazz’, etc—is a precious search for words that are only used in Ireland) and a list of ‘200 Reasons Not to Leave Dublin’ (very crudely, consider how many of these items are related to buying things, or how many are dependent on a comfortable, well-fed version of Irishness as light-touch privilege: No. 13, ‘Banter with the Gardaí’…?). Once the products of the Irish culture industry are separated from their claim to the great mystical ‘we’, their power to speak for others is eliminated, and new possibilities for expression, beyond the single-minded quest for a stable identity, come into sight.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms: Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought, trans. Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber Nicholson (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983), 32.

[2] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’, in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (London: Routledge, 2008), 61-97, 69.

[3] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Allen Lane, 1973), 153.

[4] Michael Bull, ‘The Auditory Nostalgia of iPod Culture’, in Sound Souvenirs: Audio Technologies, Memory and Cultural Practices, eds. Karin Bijsterveld and José van Dijck (Amsterdam:Amsterdam, 2009), 83-93, 85

[5] Jay M. Bernstein, ‘Introduction’, in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (London: Routledge, 2008), 1-28, 7.

[6] Richard Sennett, The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973) 44-45.

[7] Boym, Svetlana. ‘Nostalgia and Its Discontents’, Hedgehog Review Summer (2007): 7-18, 7.


3 thoughts on “‘Irish Nostalgia as Commodity and Control’ – Miles Link

  1. Pingback: The Magnum Opus: ice cream, football and nostalgia in Ireland « straight off the beach

  2. A useful culture industry research project is GDD Authentic Irish Pub Builders (ggdglobal.com). Back in the mid 90s I did some research into the form of social networks linked to Irish run/owned/franchised in the Paris region. Sennet’s, as well as Howie Becker’s work on musicians helped more than Adorno’s pessimism. I was not interested in the simulacra of the tawdy bookshelf or the antiquarian tucan but social capital differences between pub identities. Empirical evidence led to some sociological insight into the extent cultural identification plays in finding one’s place in a big city. It might surprise but exclusion, rather than inclusion was often the hallmark of such establishment’s that seemed closer to the real thing back home.
    These first generation European Irish Pubs have given way to a new Celtic World style or been absorbed into multicultural mash-ups. Recently, I collected evidence about Irish trad music, dance and more recently gaelic football in Brittany. The reality is that these disciplines are being taught by native French with little or no direct contact with Irish or Ireland. As a teacher this is an interesting development. What matters today in France is not a literary dissertation on James Joyce but the more fertile area of cultural interactions. If one adopts a wider view of these dynamics then this commodification of identification as style, to use Teddy’s hype, the problem of authenticity, (or should that be purification), is far less threatening.
    Finally, I think that it is more often subtle irony not nostalgia that underpins the emotions reflected in representations of our recent TV past. Nostalgia means a ‘sickness unto death’ in Greek and described soldiers who could not return from the war to their homeland.
    By the way, I keep a copy of Gaddis’s ‘Agapé, Agape’ near at hand for those moments of doubt!

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