by J.C. Hanvey
Aesthetics begins as a discourse of the body[i]
Culture is the sediment in which power settles and takes root[ii]
Fuck your middle-class propriety! I’ve got desires to pursue…[iii]
Bonfires have routinely become public phenomena in Northern Ireland subject to the bourgeois gaze. Whilst media outlets refer to these spectacles in terms that delineate their danger to the public and, rightfully, condemn the inherent sectarian overtones which accompany them, it is necessary to contend the omission of the habitus in bourgeois representations of the bonfire builders as an aesthetic intolerance which mirrors that of the position it opposes.
If we follow Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus, we can suppose that, rather than being simply an unsightly, barbarous imposition of sectarian nastiness, the bonfire is the (meta)physical embodiment of the PUL [note a] cultural capital. In this sense, the PUL habitus is a non-economic and symbolic capital pertaining to a specific social aesthetics; the arbitrariness of a settled identity. It is a closed system of thought, an instance of an epistemological discourse we can refer to as a standpoint, and a perspective from which we can draw value beyond the immediate social prejudices upheld by the bourgeois gaze.
Terry Eagleton, in his dissection of culture’s collusions with power, inferred that
There has been much talk [in Northern Ireland] of the need for an amicable encounter between what is blandly known as ‘the two cultural traditions’, Unionist and nationalist. It is thus that a history of injustice and inequality, of Protestant supremacy and Catholic subjugation, can be converted into the innocuous question of alternative cultural identities.
Culture becomes a convenient way of displacing politics.[iv]
And in so being,
Culture and tradition can thus be disruptive forces as well as preservative ones[v]
What is unfortunate is that habitus becomes so deeply embedded that it often serves as justification for sectarian sensibilities. We hear the weaponisation of language; we see the effigial pyre; we smell the burnt rubber. There is no irony that advanced capitalism has been subject to schizoanalysis, and it follows that Bourdieu proposes the term misrecognition to consolidate such issues of habitual complexity. The sectarian attribute becomes a kind of Marxian false consciousness, differing only in that these mannerisms are conformed to because of social empowerment rather than ideological pressure. As such, we can suggest that the historically sectarian position of the PUL system is now rendered as an act of communal legitimation against the bourgeois.
This is how we seem to find moments of openness from the PUL community when the limits of class are broken through. In an empathetic example of the outsider-within, Irish photographer Enda Bowe demonstrates with his project Love’s Fire Song[vi] [vii] the imperative of mutual aid to ensure the freedom from suspicion and dissolution of prejudice. In doing so, any question of ‘morality’ is removed in the scrutiny of the conflagrations as morality is, after all, a more archaic and reductive system of principles than that of the PUL. Rather, as a standpoint, the PUL system is a simply a habitual consequence of the Glorious Revolution and is, therefore, the essence of their Spinozan desire; that is, the effort to persist in existence.
J.C. is a writer based in Belfast
[i] Terry Eagleton, Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2018), 80.
[ii] Eagleton, 65.
[iii] Matt Colquhoun, ‘Introduction: No More Miserable Monday Mornings’, in Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures (London: Repeater, 2021), 21.
[iv] Eagleton, Culture, 161.
[v] Eagleton, 74.
[vi] ‘Enda Bowe’, Gallery of Photography Ireland. From: https://www.galleryofphotography.ie/enda-bowe-loves- fire-song
[vii] Tim Adams, ‘The Big Picture: Bonfire season in Belfast’. 30 August 2020. The Guardian. From: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/aug/30/the-big-picture-bonfire-season-in-belfast
a. The abbreviation “PUL” refers to the broader Protestant, Unionist, and Loyalist community of Northern Ireland.