|English and American Studies
|Univ.-Prof. Dr. Werner Huber (University of Vienna)
|Summer semester 2010 (University of Vienna)
|Spectacles of Blindness and Insight: ‘The Great Hoax’ from Swift to Beckett
In the introduction to his 1894 compendium of The Humour of Ireland, David James O’Donoghue specifies that in forging a canon of Irish comic writing he will leave aside “the anonymous, the hybrid, the spurious” (xvii). This doctoral thesis demonstrates that the discursive event of the literary hoax, that polyphonic site of “the anonymous, the hybrid, the spurious,” is inextricable from the canon that O’Donoghue proposes to formulate. It is argued that the interface between literary hoaxes and more standard forms of fiction constitutes a critically under-theorised dimension of the Irish canon. By reclaiming the importance of hoaxes on the margins of dominant discourses – in astrological almanacs, travelogues, scientific reports, pamphlets, essays, translations, newspaper articles, confessions, critical tracts, scholarly lectures, and various genres ostensibly marked with tags such as ‘non-fiction’, ‘referential’, ‘trustworthy’, ‘true’ – this study imbues undifferentiated essentialist readings of the Irish tradition with historical depth. More significantly, it demonstrates the extent to which the project of staging and deconstructing the problem of trust in the literary event is a central drive of Irish comic writing.
The study covers a broad historical and generic spectrum of ad hoc engagements with the cultural logics and literary devices of the hoax: preparing falsified documents, forging signatures, and manipulating the truth-claims encoded in discursive genres so as to claim spuriously and then challenge an authority grounded in expertise, insight, and a necessary trust. Authors considered from this perspective include Jonathan Swift (“The Bickerstaff Affair”, Gulliver’s Travels), Maria Edgeworth (An Essay on Irish Bulls), William Maginn (Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country), Francis Sylvester Mahony (“The Prout Papers”), James Clarence Mangan (Anthologica Germanica, Literæ Orientales), Sheridan Le Fanu (“The Room at the Dragon Volant”), Brian O’Nolan (The Irish Times Letters Hoax, The Third Policeman), James Joyce (Finnegans Wake), and Samuel Beckett (“Le Concentrisme,” Ohio Impromptu). In its broader thesis, the study considers how the (perhaps uncomfortably close) relationship between the literary hoax and the fictional text compels us to turn away from a model of analysing literature along an axis of truth and falsehood – as a series of propositional ‘truth claims’ about the world – to one that considers literature and its various responses in print as an intersubjective event in which texts play with the perlocutionary forces of belief, expectation, and trust. In its narrower thesis, the project considers how the hoax’s various hijackings and transgressions of the law of genre, the authenticating gestures of paratextual and exegetical apparatuses, and the authority of the signature are (and perhaps cannot help but be) concomitant with challenges to the normative discourses of expertise, authenticity, and taste. In the process they test Steven Shapin’s claim that “the identification of trustworthy agents is necessary to the constitution of any body of knowledge” and expose the ideological abuses of a trust which is, perforce, “reposed in morally bound truth-tellers and promise-keepers”. While each text analysed conceptualises differently the co-ordinates of authentic and inauthentic knowledge and the sources of deception in their cultural moment, they all share the attempt to claim (spuriously) and then challenge the expertise, authority, and right to speak the truth and command the reader’s trust.
This PhD project’s primary goals are intimately related to a number of overlapping strands of the ARGE Kulturelle Dynamiken research clusters, in particular hybridisation (in the hoax’s dual status as a strict adherence to and subversive transgression of the laws of genre), transmedialisation, (in the hoax’s tendency both to call on the authority of multiple media forms to bolster its claims to authenticity and to incorporate responses in various media into its ever-proliferating forms), theatricalisation (in the hoax’s explorations of the power of performativity, simulation, and the fake to alter and shape reality), and memorialisation (in its sustained engagement with the “problem of the archive”; exploiting the fact that barring omniscience, at some point we all must place our trust in the claims of others who have travelled to the archive and returned with word of its contents or else devolve into paranoid scepticism).