Design by Erik Loyer
"Crowds of miserable Irish darken all our towns." "Ireland has poured forth the most destitute of her hordes to supply the constantly increasing demand for labour." In phrases such as these, social commentators in 19th century Britain as diverse as the critic Thomas Carlyle and the social reformer James Kay register the disturbing presence of the migrant Irish. Possibly no population in the nineteenth century was more mobile than the poor Irish who, even before the disastrous Famine of 1845-1851, were given to seasonal and sometimes permanent migration to Britain and further afield, in search of work to see them through the months when the potato crop was exhausted or as a population displaced by agricultural rationalization. Their mobility was disturbing to English observers for several reasons. In the first place the "contagious example" of their modes of life was seen as threatening to infect and corrupt the manners of the English working class, lowering their living standards and expectations as well as their rates of wages. The migrant Irish were also assumed literally to bear with them disease and contagion, their dunghills being held to be the source of the "miasmas" from which pestilence was supposed to arise.
The Irish also present, however, a source of discursive disturbance. For political economy, they are a theoretical anomaly, surviving in excessive numbers on a subsistence crop whose abundance defies the laws of economics and supports a laboring population far in excess of the available capital. More than that, they trouble the very axes of language itself. The recurrent figures of Irishness—the potato, dung and miasma—are metaphors that are simultaneously metonyms, identities that fix them yet that are modes of displacement. The Irish as peasants are like potatoes off which they live, by which they live: stolid, lumpish, confined to the local, yet like the potato they spread and proliferate wildly in a rhizomatic process of reproduction—in a metonymic movement. Like the dung in contiguity with which they live, they are a waste, redundant matter, but one also which oozes and flows to contaminate whatever it touches. They move, contagiously, like the miasmas that emanate from them. In this perpetual shift between metaphor and metonym, the Irish become the mimics of the system of exchange itself, in which commodities occupy simultaneously the axes of likeness and of substitution. Caught in the dispossessing displacements of primitive accumulation, and thrown on the labour market as that ultimate commodity, abstract labour, the mobile Irish who seem so peripheral and backward in relation to capitalism, become the parodic double of its own vertiginous and destabilizing flows.
"Mobile Figures" seeks not only to present an account of Irish mobility in the nineteenth century, but to enact that mobility and its effects. Structured around the three tropes of Irishness, potato, dung and miasma, the text constructs a rhizomatic network of movements between nodes of argument, archival material and amplifying commentary. These nodes are linked at once metonymically, in the sense that a set of syntagms or threads link steps in the argument to one another, and metaphorically, in that the citations construct a web of paradigmatic statements, both about the Irish and about the figures that inscribe them in a network of associations. Although the text can be read as a series of propositions organized within a linear argument and supported by evidentiary material, it can also be read as a potentially inexhaustible fabric of associative threads, each node of which branches into other sets of association. Such a text seeks to use the possibilities of web publication to enact the processes that a standard print-medium essay would only describe. It is consequently necessarily experimental and open-ended, doubtful as it is that an exhaustive set of associations could be established. Ideally, indeed, this is a text that would invite supplementation, the reader being invited to add citations and commentary that would extend the schematic net of associations established here, no restriction on legitimate and illegitimate associations being in principle possible, and each node opening onto fields that surely exceed the purview of any single "author".