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Modes of Disruption: The Representation of Violence in the Fiction of Janice Galloway, Niall Griffiths and James Kelman

This physical violence which so characterises Sheepshagger, and the extent to which it can be considered as communicative, cannot be divorced from the novel’s devolutionary context. Devolution is an issue born from a condition of “enforced democratic consensus”, (Žižek 64) a violence latent in the top-down implementation of policy by the UK Parliament to inadequately-represented regions without consideration of such regions’ cultural traditions - as John Osmond says of the Welsh nationalist movement:

 

Thatcherite conservatism corrupted a culture of potential citizenship into the culture of individualistic consumerism. This was manifest in the poll tax, the ‘opting out’ of schools, the internal NHS market, nursery vouchers, and the Lottery, and offended Welsh traditions of community solidarity (114).

 

If read naturalistically, Ianto is guilty of murdering an English boy and two English hikers, but it is clear that there is also an allegorical function of these murders - that Ianto’s unstated, or perhaps sublimated, target is the UK Parliament in Westminster. Ianto’s physical violence is a response to and reaction against structural violence imposed on Wales by Westminster, as identified above by Osmond. The structural violence manifests itself in many ways throughout the text. The English yuppy wearing a “Manchester United home shirt” (not even an away shirt) and hosting his “private party” is clearly representative of larger issues than just the displacement of Ianto from his childhood home. (Griffiths 18) Likewise, remarks such as “[t]hose bastards use it as a second home like for eys holidays an I haven’t even got one. Not fuckin fair it’s not.” (20) can be read beyond a naturalistic context as being an allegorical representation of the tensions between the Welsh nation and the British state.

 

Certainly, one of the most important functions of the violence in Sheepshagger is to highlight that the violence between nation and state is very much a two-way process. The violence of the state in regulating nations is, in the text, embodied in the figure of the ethereal Englishman who appears out of nowhere to brutally abuse the ten-year-old Ianto: “his hot and horrid breath blood in his beard and shreds of Ianto’s flesh in his teeth and Ianto’s sodden face spattered with spittle and dots of his own stolen blood.” (234) This passage operates as an exegesis of structural violence, in which the accusations leveled against the English of stealing Wales, as voiced by the Welsh nationalist movement, are here given physical form in the “stolen” blood of its children. But this is not just any blood: it is the blood and flesh of Ianto’s genitals and thus of the future of Wales. This moment of violence functions as both a retrospective vision of the urgent need for Welsh devolution pre-1997 and, also, through the nature of the vicious circumcision, highlights the extent to which the current generation of Welsh people are implicated in the nation’s history, a history which is here presented as explicitly violent.

 

That the process of holding Britain together in the period before the 1997 devolution can be labeled violent is, of course, a political act in its own right, but this raises the more general point that the act of labeling anything as qualitatively violent has political implications. It is this politicisation of violence, or the application of violence as an ideological tool, that James Kelman explores in his novel How Late it Was, How Late. Like Griffiths, Kelman reveals forms of structural violence by giving such violence a physical manifestation - in this case, through Sammy’s blindness as a result of police brutality. Like Griffiths’ violence, this blindness operates both naturalistically - Sammy suffers from an undiagnosed physiological or psychological condition as a result of the amalgamation of physical and structural violence - but also allegorically: “[t]here was some kind of symbolic thing about it, he couldnay mind but, what it was, what it meant.” (Kelman, How Late it Was 14) Sammy is put in prison because he acts with physical violence, something he acknowledges his responsibility for: “Nay point blaming the sodjers if you’ve ladled into them in the first place; fuck sake man ye cannay blame them for giving ye a doing.” (15) But although Sammy is held accountable by law, and holds himself accountable, the officers responsible for his blindness are not held accountable; one of the results of Sammy’s blindness is that he cannot see his aggressors where they can see him. Thus, Sammy can be held accountable without being able to hold anyone else accountable, and a common distinction between unofficial bodies as participating in “violence” and official bodies as using “force” is reinforced.

 

The other side of this distinction - in fact the mechanism that allows such differentiation to occur - is the structural violence that underpins it; a structural violence Kelman himself explicates in his essay ‘Art and Subsidy, and the Continuing Politics of Culture City’:

 

But it’s easier to focus attention on a victim rather than seek out the cause of the violation. Nowadays we make victims of people and then punish them for being victims, transforming them into objects of ridicule or even criminals(35).

 

In How Late it Was, How Late this is clearly observable through the extent to which Sammy, as a victim of physical violence, is required to prove his victimhood to the institutions of the welfare state - not just to the police but to the NHS doctor who refuses to diagnose his blindness. Sammy’s legal aid Ally exemplifies this violence, refusing to listen to Sammy’s insistence that “it doesnay concern ye” and literally forcing himself into a position of representation - a textbook example of Slavoj Žižek’s assertion that: “sometimes a polite smile can be more violent than a brutal outburst.” (180) Of course, Sammy is blind and cannot observe such visual techniques of manipulation and, therefore, despite the day-to-day difficulties it provides for him, he is strangely liberated by his blindness. Given the mechanisms of spectacle which so traumatise Joy in The Trick is to Keep Breathing and the extent to which touch provides Ianto with a means of communication in Sheepshagger, Sammy’s blindness can be seen as offering him a unique means of avoiding the inflection of structural violence that is manifest as spectacle. The narrative stream of consciousness, through its uninterrupted prose, can subsequently be contrasted with the visual arrangement of the text in The Trick is to Keep Breathing, reflecting Sammy’s liberation from such visual stimuli as well as his increasing skepticism of the structural violence that surrounds him.

 

The element of the novel’s style that has proven to be most controversial, however, is the sustained presence of profanities, a property snubbed upon its winning the Booker Prize in 1994 by The Times critic Simon Jenkins who described the narrative voice as that of “an illiterate savage” and accused Kelman of “literary vandalism.” (20) In fact, the word “vandalism” trivialises what is nothing short of a violence against the very conventions of what is deemed artistic in the establishment of writers, readers, critics, academics, reviewers and students that make up the institution of English Literature. This is also the primary target of violence against form exhibited in the typographic experiments of The Trick is to Keep Breathing and the violent content and title of Sheepshagger. Indeed, the expositions offered by these three novels of the violence disseminated by the mainstream media through spectacle, the violence by which Britain conserved its unification before devolution, the violence initiated by state institutions against its own victims and the angry responses of individuals and communities to these inherently related phenomena, are all subservient to the formal violence inflicted against English Literature as an institution and its own participation in perpetuating an understanding of violence complicit with the shared agenda of the mainstream media and the UK government. Together, these texts stand as a resistance against the mechanisms of spectacle in normalising physical and systemic violence, and as advocates for the role of literature in providing a space independent of the state to critically consider the various manifestations of violence in British society.

 

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Works Cited

 

Arendt, Hannah, On Violence, (New York: Harvest HBJ, 1970)

Craig, Cairns, The Modern Scottish Novel: Narrative and the National Imagination, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999)

Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, trans Donald Nicholson Smith, (New York: Zone Books, 2002)

Gardiner, Michael, From Trocchi to Trainspotting: Scottish Critical Theory since 1960, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006)

Galloway, Janice, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, (London: Vintage, 1999)

Griffiths, Niall, Sheepshagger, (London: Vintage, 2002)

Jenkins, Simon, ‘An Expletive of a Winner’, The Times, (London: 15 October 1994), p. 20. Cited online at http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/contemporary_literature/v050/50.3.hames.html, accessed on 16/04/11

Kelman, James, How Late it Was, How Late, (London: QPD, 1994)

Kelman, James, ‘Art and Subsidy, and the Continuing Politics of Culture City’, Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural & Political, (Stirling: AK Press, 1992)

Nairn, Tom, The Break-Up of Britain: New Edition, (London: Verso, 1981)

Osmond, John, ‘Welsh Politics in the New Millennium’, British Cultural Studies: Geography, Nationality and Identity, ed. David Morley and Kevin Robins, (Oxford: OUP, 2001)

Potter, W. James, The 11 Myths of Media Violence, (London: Sage Publications, 2003)

Žižek, Slavoj, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, (London: Profile, 2009)

 

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